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Raymond Federman on Ways to Improve Death

The fact that Federman cannot say "I am dead "...The fact of being unable to speak one's death is the supreme category which abolishes all the others. It is the ultimate category, the category of the unspeakability of death...


Whether one dies in bed, dies in one's boots, dies with one's boots on, dies on the vine, dies in harness, dies prematurely or in one's sleep, dies in a gas chamber, dies while making love to one's lover, when all is done and said, that is the category of death that has reached total improvement because it can no longer be spoken.

Language vanishes into death, and death vanishes into silence. Or is it, death that vanishes into language, and language into silence?


So wrote Raymond Federman in "Reflections on Ways to Improve Death," an essay that reads like Jonathan Swift through the lens of Samuel Beckett, with marginal commentary by Ludwig Wittgenstein.  It's another one of Federman's brilliant transgressions on mortality, his pas de deux with Death over the course of a nearly forty-five year long career as a literary fabulist telling many different “self-reflexive” versions of the same, living text: the joyous, terrifying, self-canceling story of his own life.


Raymond Federman died Tuesday morning in San Diego after a long battle with cancer.  He was 81.


From 1964 to 1999, he lived and taught in this city as Distinguished Professor of Modern Languages and Literatures at the University at Buffalo.  No mere academic, he became a key figure in Buffalo's experimental arts and literary community, especially at Hallwalls, where he served on the Board of Directors and recruited a number of his graduate students--including longtime director Ed Cardoni and yours truly--onto the staff.


For those of us who knew him, who studied under him, who watched him invent kind of writing he called "Laughterature," a tragicomic mode that mixed grief with laughter, playfulness with fatalism, ebullient digression with the looming silence of the Holocaust, his death signifies much, much more than what he in his writing frequently referred to as a simple "change in tense." 

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Raymond Federman 1928-2009

Sad word has reached us today of the death in San Diego Tuesday of one of Buffalo's most beloved cultural figures--novelist, poet and critic Raymond Federman, long a fixture of the State University at Buffalo French and English faculties.

He retired and left Buffalo in 1997 but until then Federman was close to a ubiquitous presence at cultural events in Buffalo--jazz concerts, literary readings, art openings. He was the subject of many Buffalo tributes, in particular an all-day Federman@80 last year which concluded with a packed house reading at Medaille College by Federman, along with friends and colleagues (including Ted Pelton, Christina Milletti, Charles Bernstein and Federman's daughter Simone.)

The singularity of Federman, both as a writer and a cultural presence, is that he was about as paradoxically delightful a man as you could encounter. He was both a forbidding avant-gardiist and a writer of raucous humor. He was, at the same time, a man friendly with Samuel Beckett and Michel Foucault and a completely compassionate and democratic professor to his students at UB.

In 1999, he told an audience at the Jewish Community Center in Getzville about the formative event in his life, at the age of 14 in his family's Paris apartment.

"The German Gestapo was coming upstairs to arrest us. My mother pushed me into a closet. I listened to my mother and father and sisters go down the stairs to their extinction....I believe I've spent the last 40 years writing and trying to understand my mother's decision to push me into the closet."

At the same time as he's capable of writing from such stark and somber remembrance of horror, if you go to his blog, the first thing you see from the writer, who was dying of cancer is this: "Federman's Blog (the laugh that laughs at the laugh.)

"Laugh: yes because when some guy weeps somewhere in the world, there is always some other guy who laughs somewhere else: happy balance!....Laugh or cry it all comes out the same in the end."

He loved golf. And he loved gambling. And you could always count on him, as a writer, to double down on oblivion. Seldom will you ever encounter a committed literary experimentalist as funny as Federman.

He was a singular-looking man with a nose so prominent Ghirlandio would have loved it. (Said Federman once of his essay into performing "I played Cyrano with my own nose.")

His writings could be titled. "The Voice in the Closet" but also "Double or Nothing," "Take It or Leave it" or "More Loose Shoes and Smelly Socks" (a miscellany).

You'll also find on his blog an "Obituary" written in Federman style by his daughter Simone including this inarguable proposition "Raymond Federman means many things to many people. Hundred, if not thousands of people, love him very much, will mourn his passing with profound sorrow."

A personal reminiscence by one of his students, R. D. Pohl, will be posted on this site very soon.

--Jeff Simon

The Obamas dig Ed Ruscha

"I think I'll..." by Ed Ruscha. One of the pieces of art chosen by the Obamas to adorn the White Hous walls.

In today's New York Times, Carol Vogel has a breezy but fascinating piece on the art the Barack and Michelle Obama have chosen to decorate the White House. Among the artists represented: Ed Rushca, Mark Rothko, Jasper Johns, Degas and Morandi. Talk about some wide-ranging tastes.

Check out the story and accompanying slideshow.

--Colin Dabkowski


Christina Milletti on women's innovative fiction

"How, after all, do we "classify" women's fiction?" asks Christina Milletti in her introduction to "Everything Begins with a Yes: Innovative Fiction by International Women," the issue focus she edited for the September/October 2009  issue of American Book Review.
Milletti, an assistant professor of English at the University at Buffalo and author of The Religious and Other Fictions (Carnegie Mellon University Press, 2006) approaches what she calls "an ongoing discomfort" with the question of "difference"--to be more precise, the relation of "gender" to "genre"--with taxonomic rigor:  
Is [women's fiction] a subdivision of the greater rubric "fiction?  A [subjugated] "literary subculture"...given the "statistical majority" of women?   Is women's fiction a "minor" literature, a "political" literature, a literature "of its own"?  What is its object?  Representation, for instance?  Readership?  Resistance?...And who writes it?  Is women's fiction written by women, or is it a literature about women?  Is it a feminist literature (if so, whose feminism?)  Does it represent a "tradition"?  (If so, whose tradition?)  Finally, what do we mean by women's innovative fiction anyway?  Innovative...compared to what?

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Today: a national arts journalism summit

Keep your browsers pointed to this space today from 12 until 3 p.m. The National Arts Journalism Program, along with the University of Southern California, will be hosting an ambitious summit on the future of arts journalism. The summit will feature 10 promising initiatives in arts journalism from writers, editors and entrepreneurs from across the country. It should offer up some intriguing thoughts and theories on the future of this endangered enterprise, and will no doubt be worth checking out.

The summit will stream live below. [Full disclosure: I was part of a National Endowment of the Arts-funded writing fellowship administrated by USC in April of this year.]

The Web cast:

--Colin Dabkowski

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