The Nomadism of Picasso

Superficially one could argue that Picasso’s nomadism is most visible in his switching of languages, leaving the Spanish mother tongue to write in French (both languages, as already indicated, probably ghosted by Catalan at some level). And yet the question of a nomadic writing is not necessarily rooted in the writer giving up the mother tongue—as, indeed, Picasso never completely does. Rather, the matter of a nomadic writing is anchored elsewhere, specifically in the syntactic and grammatical manipulations the given language is subjected to, in order to free it from a range of traditional constraints. Picasso’s writing is thus nomadic in terms of its free flows, unhampered by the sedentarizing effects of normative grammar, syntax and discursive forms. To use the terms of Deleuze & Guattari, the lines of flight of a Picasso poem (and they are lines “of flight” also in the more traditional poetic definition) are never reterritorialized, are never re-inscribed onto the grid of just “literature.” One need only compare his writing to that of, say, Breton to see the absolute difference: despite Breton’s call for a “pure psychic automatism” that would break social and literary norms & barriers by the very speed of the writing (vitesse v.v.v., etc.), few writers—be it in the poetry or the prose—compose in a more traditionally rhetorical, not to say high classical, French style than Breton himself.

Picasso, the non-French artist and poet, has the considerable advantage of not being burdened by built-in or acquired stylistic grids that would contain or modulate his explorations. He raids this foreign language (raids that he has already practiced on the mother tongue, i.e. the language of the country he has by now long left behind)—and the core principles or rather the practical engines are a nonstop process of connectivity and heterogeneity along the entire semiotic chains of the writing, the characteristics of a rhizomatic and nomadic writing. The way this plays itself out in Picasso’s poems can be traced not only in the heterogeneity of the objects, affects, phenomena, concepts, sensations, vocabularies etcetera that can and do enter the writing at any given point, but mainly at the level of the assembling of these heterogeneities: eschewing syntax and its hierarchical clausal structures, the writing proceeds nomadically by paratactic relations between terms on a “plane of consistency” that produce concatenations held together (& simultaneously separated) either by pure spatial metonymical juxtapositions or by the play of the two conjunctions “and” or “of.” One could of course claim parataxis as a category of syntaxis, though it seems to me that in Picasso’s writing the very exorbitant use made of the paratactic process suggests that one may better see this process—in Giorgio Agamben’s word—as “atactic.” How traditional conjunctions and prepositions function in such nomadic atactic semantic chains is worth a closer look.

Because of their repetitive omnipresence—they seem to be evenly distributed or, rather, used with equal ferocity, joy and energy throughout the writing from 1935 to1959, with the possible exception of the plays—these conjunctions lose any causal or subordinating effects they have in traditional syntactical constructions. The conjunction “and,” maybe the most basic ligature in our languages, is in Picasso—just as it is in children’s telling and, at times, in epic narrative—a pure accelerator of action, a way of getting from one thing to the next; its multiplicity immediately overcomes the (mis)use (as brake) of this accelerator when present singly and made to function as a divider, separator, creator of dialectical or ontological differentiations between two terms, and thus as the originator of all dualisms (the good and the bad, the beautiful and the ugly). Thus never just one “and,” but always “and … and … and …” In that sense the multiple “ands” do not set up one-to-one relations between the terms they align, but function vectorally, pointing to nomadic spaces outside and beyond those terms. As Deleuze writes: “The AND is not even a specific relation or conjunction, it is that which subtends all relations, the path of all relations, which makes relations shoot outside their terms and outside the set of their terms, and outside everything which could be determined as Being.” Or, to draw on Picasso’s other art: his “ands” are gestures: they resemble the arm movements of the painter, picking up his brush, putting paint to canvas, dropping his arm, picking the brush up again, and so forth. “And,” then, as a muscle contracting/extending, an action, a speed that makes visible a multiplicity of events.

“Of” is, at first look, a different kind of conjunctive particle, as grammatically it is considered a preposition, i.e. a word placed before a substantive and indicating the relationship of that substantive to a verb, an adjective or another substantive. The opening dictionary definition of “of” in the American Heritage Dictionary reads: “Derived or coming from, originating at or from.” And indeed, Picasso’s “de” or “of,” taken singly, can be read in that fashion. But, again, the concatenation of “of’s”, the rhizomatic agencement of this particle linking wildly heterogeneous series of terms, subverts any of its single or double genitive functions, forcing the reader to eventually relinquish causal/grammatical readings—something the translator, to his or her initial chagrin and frustration, experiences at first hand when approaching the poems. But this relinquishing of the desire to locate the specific semantic unit(s) from which a given term is supposed to be derived, leads the reader/translator to experience this endless chain of derivations as an ongoing forward drive or as what the Situationsts called a “dérive” — lines of flight through language that empty any desire for origin, for an original, singular term a single “of” may point back to.

Finally, I would propose that the nomadicity of Picasso’s language is further enhanced (syntactically as well as visually) by the radical lack of punctuation marks—those “traffic signals,” as Theodor Adorno called them. As already suggested, Picasso is the most radical of his era’s practitioners of such a complete obliteration of punctuation marks. This gives his poems the feel of a wide open field, a smooth, non-striated space, or blocks of space, through or along which one can travel unchecked, free to chose one’s own moment of rest, free to create one’s own rhythms of reading—an exhilarating and liberating, dizzying and breathtaking dérive.

—Pierre Joris

The essay “The Nomadism of Picasso,” which serves as a second Pre-Face to The Burial of the Count of Orgaz, was originally published in New American Writing, no. 21, in 2003.