Raymond Federman: Cynic

Raymond Federman: Cynic

true cynics are often the kindest people, for they see the hollowness of life, and from the realization of that hollowness is generated a kind of cosmic pity
Raymond Federman, The Twofold Vibration

There can be no conclusion to this book [Cynicism from Diogenes to Dilbert]. Conclusion, that is, in the sense of a summary thesis on cynicism. Neither do I present the reader with a neat climatic ending or lessons for the future. The use of such devices would be to betray everything that cynicism stands for. What has been written on these pages amounts to no more than one introduction to a little known philosophy, prompted by the imaginings of one life out of millions of others. As Nietzsche put it, ‘It is only my truth.’ The real conclusion of this book will never be known, it is to be found in the exchange between the words on these pages and the thoughts of the individual reader. The most important part of this book for me was the process of writing it and digesting the thoughts of others who had written before me. My greatest wish is that someone else will pick up the torch of cynicism that I have tried to re-kindle and write another book, inspired in part by the pages contained here.

That at least was my intention. Then, just as I was completing the final chapter of this book I made a remarkable discovery - I stumbled across a real cynic. I had been searching for a living cynic, a real Diogenean cynic, ever since I had started writing the book. But either they were too political or they did not laugh or they were too scholarly or like me they could only tell the reader about cynicism. What I was searching for was someone like Diogenes, one of those rare beings who live their philosophy, someone who could show us what cynicism is rather than simply describe it. I am grateful to Raymond Federman, for doing just that.

If Diogenes had sought out his tub as a symbolic gesture for his cynicism, Raymond Federman’s cynicism was born from a tub. Or to be more precise, the small upstairs closet in a Paris apartment into which he had been hastily thrust by his mother just before she, his father and his two sisters were rounded up in the Rafle du Vel d’Hiv’ and taken to Auschwitz to be killed. The fourteen year old boy who hid in the closet, started his new life with no more than a small package of his own warm shit wrapped in newspaper (The Voice in the Closet). Federman describes being ‘born voiceless at a hole’s edge’ on this day 16th July 1942. But he did not remain voiceless, in his 40 year career as a writer he has never stopped talking.

Sidelined by the literary establishment for daring to revive (in both content and form) the chaos and orgy of Dionysus that once made writing explode the senses, Federman has never attained the celebrity status of other contemporary French philosophers. This is not because he avoids accolades but rather that he has a stubborn commitment to his art. In Take It Or Leave It, the longest cynical rant in history, he refused to allow the publisher to include any page numbers. No single writer of our age has captured the true spirit of Diogenes more than Raymond Federman. No, not even his old friend Samuel Beckett whom he idolises and quotes at every opportunity. But then Federman was the very first Beckettian. When his Ph.D. board challenged Federman that Beckett was a charlatan, he retorted angrily “You’ll see, Beckett will win the Nobel prize for literature in ten years time”---he predicted the exact year! Federman integrates all of the essential modes of cynical discourse: action, laughter and silence into his prolific writing. The victim who refuses to see himself as a victim, was given in that small closet not only the gift of life, but the gift to make others laugh---laugh at a world that he knows to be truly absurd, laugh at himself, laugh at The Laugh That Laughs At The Laugh.

And yet, typical of all great cynics, Federman is before his time. He may not reach the legendary status he deserves until after, as he puts it, he has changed tense. Published in twenty languages, he remains unknown in Britain and sadly overlooked in his host country. But here is a living example of Burkhardt’s all-sided-man. Emerging from Federman’s fiction are some remarkable facts and near misses, including his exploits as a down-and-out in New York City (and several other cities); as a gambler; as a paratrooper in the 82nd Airborne Division; failing to qualify for the 1948 Olympic swimming team by a tenth of a second; and blowing saxophone with Charlie Parker.

Now living in the sun on his emeritus distinguished professor’s pension and promoting wider recognition of his works in numerous new and revised publications, one might question Federman’s credentials as a cynic. And yet, with the following line from To Whom It May Concern, Federman anticipates the question. ‘I am caught’ he says, ‘between the desire for fame and the need for oblivion.’ And herein lies the cynical paradox. If Diogenes had not become a celebrity, surely Alexander would have had no reason to cast him in his shadow; an act which produced the response that assured Diogenes his celebrity status for all time. To give a voice to cynicism we must have some celebrated exponents of the art. Public cynics, like avant-garde artists, cannot avoid the respectability conferred on them with the passing of time. In the very act of achieving recognition the cynic is pulled down from their lofty perch. Federman anticipated this possibility also when as an unpublished writer he wrote to a friend, ‘I want to shock the bourgeois (before I become one myself) a little.’

And so, the reader, who has made it to the final pages of this book, will after all be subjected to a climatic conclusion. For in Federman’s writing can be found first hand (as opposed to my own second hand accounts) a parallel reference to every theme that I have already discussed in the preceding pages. Regrettably only fragments of Federman’s diatribes can be reproduced here. His aphorisms speak for themselves, but to fully appreciate the rage and humour of his diatribes, and his absolute commitment against the object of his anger and obsession, total immersion is recommended.

Classical cynicism

he thinks this is the defining act
the actualization of a central image
that of a man standing
on the edge of an abyss
pissing into a hard wind
not a mistake not an idle gesture
but the assertion of presence
Here & Elsewhere

I disturb people, I make them uncomfor-table, and that is my purpose, and I shall exploit this, to push down their throats what I have to tell them
The Laugh that Laughs at the Laugh

Renaissance cynicism

in Politics TRUE POLITICS there is no room for sentimentality . . . its all played beyond good and evil and if you are one of the losers then Bang! it’s you who takes it on the head but if you’re on the side of the guys who are winning then it’s you who gives it to the other guy it’s just a matter of being on the right side at the right time and then you’re one of those who those who those who those who those who those who fuck the rest of humanity who beat the shits out of the other guy with contusive clubs with hammers and nails and electric shocks and fingers in the ass and needles in the arm and kicks in the belly and cigarette burns while the rest of humanity continues to vomit its guts while shouting stupid slogans!
Therefore you don’t think I’m going to take you seriously because of a little question like that? Politics my friend (yes you with the mustache) you can shove it up your ass in little capsules (Psitt!) in square round or oval pills (Psitt!) it’s delicious for constipation believe me!
Take It Or Leave It


in the dark I sneaked out
of the window and climbed
behind a cloud to look for god
but all I found were my own footprints
Here & Elsewhere

Fuck MODESTY! Scorn and contempt and hatred that’s what one learns from ZSCH damn right scorn and not modesty or humility or resignation or submission or fear! One must shit and piss on all human weakness well, gentlemen, I assure you he shitted and pissed all over it, and this is why he could call himself without any modesty the FIRST if not the ONLY ONE to have totally squarely integrally radically and definitely shoved aside religion morality responsibility and of course the LITTLE JESUS and his OLD MAN heaven and hell and all the rest
Take It Or Leave It

The postmodern cynic

when we fall into the great void
we recede backwards
at the speed of light
towards our origin
so that we can
be launched
into the spiral
of our unfinished destiny
Here & Elsewhere

I was sad to see postmodernism disappear before we could explain it, I kind of liked postmodernism, I was happy in the postmodern condition, as happy if not happier than the previous condition. I don’t remember what that was called but I was glad to get out of it
Aunt Rachel’s Fur

The cynical artist

What determines the degree of completion of a work is not all the exigencies of art or of truth, it is fatigue, and, even more so, disgust. . . . There is no true art without a strong dosage of banality. The one who uses the unusual in a consistent manner quickly bores his audience, for nothing is more unbearable than the uniformity of the exceptional.
Take It Or Leave It


gentlemen between you and I and without blushing America is hard to take to swallow hard to conquer because do I dare suggest it America it’s a big fat broad that one must seize with one’s arms squeeze passionately a big sexy bitch with enormous teats a splendid ass and a lovely furry cunt and if you want to possess to explore to search that magnificent bit of geography you have to go a long way and have the desire and the courage not only to speak about it but do something about it and the problem with most Americans is that they don’t have the guts nor the initiative to fuck the hell out of their mother land and so instead of really trying to shove their dicks into it they justify their cowardice by simply dropping their pants in front of it and jerk off like a bunch of kids where in fact me gentlemen I wanted to penetrate that mother land yes I wanted to explode to burst inside her ass and inside her cunt I wanted my sperm to flow between her gorgeous cheeks one good time and that's why I decided to love it to love it without shame
Take It Or Leave It


Seriousness is a quality for those who have no other qualities.
Smiles on Washington Square

Ah the laughing act: doesn’t work for you guys because you guys laugh Japanese style delicately with your hands in front of your mouth as if you were coughing! What the hell you guys think that laughter is some kind of sickness?
Take It Or Leave It


It was not going very well already in the kingdom of literature since le nouveau roman that great triumph of sing-my-ass we were going quite copiously robbe-grilladized semiotized in full from salsify to chinese lanterns but now we are truly moving tumbling into shit here we are fallen crestfallen to the underlevel of undersollersism into the invertebrate desensibilized by barthist analism zerofied offhandedly materialized getting closer to objects and facts than causes emasculated scientifically by shameless daily gossiping superjerking scenarios moving now towards the immense the endless organic debacle towards the great deluge of low-down tricks the crashup of confusionism masturbatory telquelism drifting on the lacanian raft derridian barge shipwrecked in other words on the sea of fucked up literature where civilisation can be measured assessed rather by the distance man places between himself and his excrement
Take It Or Leave It

That’s the problem with talking too much. Eventually you reveal yourself. But when you don’t talk you become a suspiciously suspicious character.
Double or Nothing

Therapy culture

This fucking world is saturated with false hopes . . . we are drowning in a cesspool of theosophical emanations, cosmic influences, occult powers, spiritual visitations, stellar vibrations and divine farts, and yes yes it’s all shit, de la merde molle et fumante, do you hear me, de la saloperie, de la crasse
The Twofold Vibration

... and finally

We all live like cockroaches in the crevices of our twisted imagination
Smiles on Washington Square

One suffers and one suffers from not suffering enough
The Twofold Vibration

having oscillated all my life
between the torments
of superficial idleness
and the horror
of disinterested action
I find myself at last
in a situation
where to do nothing
becomes an act of
the highest value
Here & Elsewhere

Books referenced by Raymond Federman

Aunt Rachel’s Fur, Tallahassee, Florida: Fiction Collective Two, 2001
Double or Nothing, Normal, Illinois: Fiction Collective Two, 1998
Here & Elsewhere, Macon, Georgia: Six Gallery Press, 2003
Smiles on Washington Square, Los Angeles: Sun and Moon Press, 1985
Take It Or Leave It, Normal, Illinois: Fiction Collective Two, 1997
The Laugh that Laughs at the Laugh, Eckhard Gerdes (ed), San Jose: Writers Club Press, 2002
The Twofold Vibration, Los Angeles: Green Integer, 2000
The Voice in the Closet, Buffalo (NY): Starcherone Books, 2001.

-- Ian Cutler (23/11/2005)

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