Self-Portrait of an   Other:  Dreams of the Island and the Old City      by  Cees Nooteboom  &  Max Neumann      translated by  David Colmer   
  Seagull Books (February 2012)  Reviewed by  K. Thomas Kahn

Self-Portrait of an Other: Dreams of the Island and the Old City
by Cees Nooteboom & Max Neumann
translated by David Colmer
Seagull Books (February 2012)

Reviewed by K. Thomas Kahn

Je est un autre. —Arthur Rimbaud


Rimbaud’s 15 May 1871 letter to fellow poet Paul Demeny stands not only as a touchstone for modernist literature, but also as a presage of poststructuralist thought on alterity, most notably the work of psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan. For Rimbaud, “I is an other” is a concept that serves a cultural function for the artist, the writer as visionary (“I say it [the I] must be a seer, make oneself a seer”), dissociated from the self to forge an aesthetics whose focal points are meditations on the fractured nature of the “I” and the similarly unstable state of the world in which this being lives, creates, and desires.

This dual meditation on self and other is omnipresent in the Kafkaesque images for which Berlin-based artist Max Neumann is so well known. His images are absurd, surreal, and unsettling, many displaying Munchian faces with little or no distinguishing features, such as an untitled 2007 painting whose eerie chiaroscuro pits a darkly-clad figure against a pitch background to spotlight a white face literally coming apart at the seams from its center.

NeumannKerber    "Untitled," May 2007/August 2009, 210 cm x 200 cm, Acrylic and oil on cotton


"Untitled," May 2007/August 2009, 210 cm x 200 cm, Acrylic and oil on cotton

Whereas Munch’s Screamer actually does scream, a howl that is carried along in a circuitous wave of blue into the orange-tinted sunset above his head, Neumann’s images appear to be screaming silently: his palette suggests the alienation and dissociation individuals feel in the world at large and also in their own skin. As Cees Nooteboom puts it in one of the companion text pieces in Self-Portrait of an Other, his collaboration with Neumman: “Unable to advance or fall back, he turns circles in the space left him, screaming his discomfort in the scorched air.”

These themes of Neumann’s work were united recently in a collaboration with Hungarian author László Krasznahorkai; that collection, Animalinside, drew from each of their haunting concerns about self and other, the individual versus the state, and how the artist can act as a mediating figure for dominant culture to present the schismatic nature of things using an aesthetic approach indebted to Rimbaud’s visionary “I” as well as poststructuralism’s questioning of the dichotomies surrounding the nature of identity. It seems only fitting that Dutch author Nooteboom would want to collaborate with an artist like Neumann given that Nooteboom’s poetic prose fuses reality and dreams in uncanny ways that often mirror prosaically what Neumann does visually. As Nooteboom writes of first encountering Neumann’s images:

I could not reconcile their restlessness with the calm their maker radiated. I felt as if I knew the world I encountered in his work very well without being able to say why. Later I saw his work again in Barcelona and Paris and there too, far from his German base, I again felt the enchantment of those strange, unprecedented creatures, dream figures that resist description.

Self-Portrait of an Other roots itself titularly in the Rimbauldian, poststructuralist tradition by calling attention to the divisive nature of existence which Nooteboom and Neumann make the crux of their project: “Instead of trying to describe [Neumann’s] work, I would draw on its atmosphere and my own arsenal of memories, dreams, fantasies, landscapes, stories and nightmares to write a series of textual images as an echo but unlinked, a mirror.” (I will return to this idea of the mirror and its relation to otherness shortly.) The title “cuts both ways” according to Neumann in focusing its concerns on the same phenomenological events with which Lacanian psychoanalysis is concerned: “memories, dreams, fantasies,” and so on. In addition, the epigraph to Self-Portrait of an Other underscores the collaboration’s intent to examine various dichotomies—self/other, reality/dreams, landscapes/cityscapes—from a liminal standpoint as a Rimbaudian seer: “Transmigration of the soul does not happen after but during a lifetime.” This curious statement problematizes the teleological aim in most discursive practices, noting that what is to come after at the level of discourse is an event that actually takes place during one’s lifetime, thus becoming a phenomenon to which we can choose to bear witness.

Neumann’s palette for the background of the images in this collaboration consists entirely of variants of blood orange and a deep, sharp red, one reminiscent of Austrian artist Hermann Nitsch’s canvases and installations made with blood. Here, Neumann’s reds serve as artery-like settings against which his figures can emerge as though from scenes of carnage. One image is of a seemingly human form either wrestling with or morphing into a birdlike other whose beak is open in what appears to be an anguished cry. Another image places a hybrid figure in a series of obstructions—harsh black lines near the sides of the body present an obvious restriction, but Neumann carries this further by fashioning his painting into an oppressive force upon this being with a self-reflexive rectangle that calls our attention to the painting being a painting, a move uniting this collaboration’s poststructuralist tenets with aesthetic experimentations paired with linguistic inquiry such as René Magritte’s, most notably his La Reproduction Interdit (1937).

Like the figures that feature in Neumann’s startling images and which emerge from a blood-soaked background, Nooteboom’s prose poems emerge from and speak to Neumann’s own. A series of dreamscapes and ruminations, of splintered moments in time and fetishized compulsions, Nooteboom’s words weave in and out of different states as seamlessly as do Neumann’s paintings; as such, the repetitive themes of the project are stressed, becoming an obsessive rhythm to which the images add an additional level of anxiety, melancholy, and despair.

In one text, the text facing Neumann’s image of the figure obstructed which I noted above, Nooteboom situates his prose in the Rimbaudian tradition where intellectual and artistic discovery is the cause of existence: “He knew his continued existence was due solely to his addiction to thought, the chains of words he draped over things that remained unnameable despite their names.” Naming the unnameable is at the core of any artistic endeavor; here, the binary relation between what is named and what cannot be named stands as but one of the tenuous dichotomous relations examined throughout Self-Portrait of an Other, the examination of which can never be exhausted except through a Derridean “slippage”: a transgression of binaries by positioning oneself in the middle, by embracing an otherness that is paradoxically part and parcel of one’s self.

The artist is also visited by gods, but Nooteboom, rather than embracing a divine presence to serve as a poetic muse, rejects such intervention: “He kept still and hoped the god would not notice him.” Solitude remains the province for the poetic and artistic examination of existence, then, but this is complicated by the fact that the self is a series of masks, a collection of identities often so disparate that they can only remain in the realm of the unnameable: “When he is alone, crowds become mysterious. Among others, he no longer knows himself. Who are they? Does he recognize his own mask?” Apart from being masked from one’s own self, the “I” is under constant panoptic surveillance, with “perfectly circular eye[s] watching him”; as such, despite the solitary task of fathoming one’s own identity, this endeavor is also a performance of sorts, one that takes place under the eyes of society at large and therefore reduces the self to an actor in the drama that ensues when an individual attempts to challenge hegemonic meanings and norms.

Otherness is related to this idea of the gaze: “As the day proceeded, he saw the faces change, growing less and less recognizable. He wondered if he was like that too, but he didn’t dare touch it and avoided his glance in the windows... This time there were two of him.” According to Lacan, the mirror stage is one of the most pivotal development stages in our growing understanding of who we are and what makes us an “I”; however, in the mirror it is not recognition but misrecognition (méconnaissance) that causes us to begin to fathom our identity. As Nooteboom writes: “He didn’t know if his body has recognized him.” Like Neumann’s images, Nooteboom wonders if “there were holes where the eyes had been,” causing a project concerned with an analysis of the self to buckle as the self is an entity that is ultimately a stranger. Tellingly, then, it is the Other—our reflected image which we fetishize as an “ideal-I”—that defines our self, and it is for this Other that we are continually striving, barred from this idealized version of ourselves by desire and the linguistic trappings of the symbolic order. If “I is an other” then the “I” is also always in pursuit of the Other.

In Nooteboom’s prose poems, the mirror comes to stand as the place where this terrifying performance of recognition and otherness is enacted, and therefore there is both an attraction to this scene as well as a repulsion: “How easy, he thought, to disappear, becoming someone who has left his clothes on the rocks and entered the mirror forever, the impossibly thin, living mirror that seals the silence.” This image again emphasizes this collaboration’s aim to dismantle binary oppositions, and yet risk being “seal[ed] in silence” in the process. While images can help us to remember past experiences, they can also be traumatizing in that these reminders can further alienate us from our sense of self, recalling events in an ostensibly objective way when it is subjectivity that governs our relation to things: “There must still be photos with him in them, photos in which he didn’t want to see himself. The number of lives in an old body is unbearable.”

Recognition and rupture: these extremes are at the heart of many philosophical and aesthetic projects and Self-Portrait of an Other is a relentless meditation on the relation between self and other, between text and image, between the individual and the world, and, most importantly, what the artist’s role is in trying to elucidate these questions—for these are phenomenological questions to which there are no answers—in ways that do not repeat old discourses. Neumann’s images and Nooteboom’s texts work together to postulate a world in which the self can be free from all fetters, a world that can exist only in the dreamscapes and nightmare worlds the two men create together for there can be no self without the divisions, fissures, and schisms that we conceptualize as the Other.


K. Thomas Kahn is a writer based in New York City whose criticism has appeared in the Los Angeles Review of Books, The Quarterly Conversation, Book Slut, 3:AM Magazine, The Millions, and other venues. He is the curator of @proustitute.