Heartwood 9:1 – The Life and Opinions of Zacharias Lichter by Matei Calinescu

Zacharias Lichter is an ugly man with a deformed face, in tattered beggar’s clothes, who is said to be one of the city’s most familiar, bizarre, and picturesque figures. He has haunted the streets and parks for years, and people (who mostly try to avoid him) tend to see him as a madman. We come to learn that he was touched by a divine flame in his youth which caused him to shake off his merchant-family upbringing to study philosophy, but then to withdraw from opportunities in academia despite his well-regarded dissertation on the Enneads of Plotinus. He is known to let loose a torrent of words on his vision of an ideal society that would do away with ownership and in which more people would be beggars, as begging “is the profession that brings one closest to God.”

Lichter shares with us his experiences and opinions packed into very brief chapters with headings such as “On Courage,” “On Women,” “On Comfort,” “The Metaphysics of Laughter,” and “The Significance of the Mask.” He believes strongly in the spoken word but is also a poet who scribbles down his poems only to throw them away (though his biographer has preserved some of these and they are sprinkled throughout the book.) He is critical of an acquisitive society, and of the lying he finds everywhere. He is obsessed by the absurdity of a God who would torment Job, and he seeks wisdom in silence. The focus is solidly on Lichter and his ideas but among other characters are his barfly friend Poldy (who is presented as a great philosopher, though he says next to nothing); a chameleonic apprentice, Anselmus, who wishes to develop a “pedagogy of beguilement;” and the feared and detested Dr. S. who wishes to psychoanalyze Lichter.

I suspect you may find Matei Calinescu’s The Life and Opinions of Zacharias Lichter to be unlike anything you’ve previously read. It was originally published in Romania in 1969 and has only recently been translated into English (by the author’s wife, Adriana Calinescu, and Breon Mitchell). Despite frequent mentions of the torrential outpouring of his prophecies, Lichter’s sprightly ideas are presented in a concise and careful fashion which makes you slow down as you try to follow their unconventional logic, all the while wondering how seriously you are intended to take them. But there’s a method to his madness, and key concerns are revisited in different ways throughout the book; some of these touchstones include the nature of being, voluntary poverty, poetry, vitalism, orality, the ineffable, and the via negativa. Be prepared to embrace iconoclasm and what Lichter calls perplexity – and to be suffused with a strangely vibrating joy.