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Eugene Ostashevsky
The Life and Opinions of DJ Spinoza. Drawings by Eugene Timerman.
reviewed by Timothy Leonido
141 pp. Ugly Duckling Presse. US $15. 9780981552101 Paper

This review is about 4 printed pages long.
It is copyright © Timothy Leonido and Jacket magazine 2009.
See our [»»] copyright notice.

Spinoza is a great philosopher.


Is there a statement or system of statements so formally concise as to be free of all ambiguity? Take this type of ‘X is Y’ model cited above. It appears to be solid enough, with its confident rhythm. On a rudimentary level, it may conjure up (a bit foggily) the oppressive and downright dull lessons of mathematical proofs. But no matter how systematized, language is always only partially appropriate for clarifying reality. Logical syntax then makes for coarse text, crumbling into paradox and into poetry with remarkable ease. Along with each step toward solid reasoning there appears elsewhere a gap of ambiguity. Truth-conditions, and really any attempts to compensate for the shortcomings of language, become ripe soil for games and interference. Keeping this firmly in mind, poet Eugene Ostashevsky plants himself appropriately in Spinoza’s Ethics, a text that boldly attempts to prove the ubiquitous existence of God through mathematical reasoning. The Life and Opinions of DJ Spinoza (because DJ’s spin, clearly) remains relatively true to geometrical form while allowing content to sputter off centrifugally, until finally decomposing. Writing within the sediment left behind by such logical ruptures is not a necessarily new poetic device, and Ostashevsky is certainly not a pioneer. However he may be one of the first, in a grand and most likely deliberate misunderstanding of Spinoza, to shape from it a ludicrous, theatrical realm. What if logic’s shortcomings were anthropomorphized into quixotic, defective characters?

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He walks into a bar
with the Laughing Philosopher and the Weeping Philosopher
The Laughing Philosopher can’t speak—
he’s laughing
The Weeping Philosopher can’t speak—
he’s weeping


We hear both simultaneously— the entire event is transcribed. Lamentation and celebration of meaninglessness sit naked alongside gleeful non sequitors. In this way Ostashevsky proves himself to be a great producer of dialogues. Here, as in previous books of poetry such as Iterature, materials from disparate sources are fused together to create a dissonant, yet compelling chorus. Truth-axioms, reversed propositions of Wittgenstein, and the marching, surrealist imperatives of the author’s nephew (who is credited for the appropriately grating, iterative phrase, ‘Peepeesaurus Peepeesaurus Go and make some pee-pee!’) are allowed to commingle. Though, don’t be deceived by the narrative comic-book style presentation of the book: DJ Spinoza belligerently stomps out plot development. The text jerks wildly from internal monologues to unprovoked fight scenes to inane chatting between God and Spinoza. Dialogues are relentlessly interrupted, deliberately sabotaged with images from American cultural detritus (‘DJ Spinoza Talks to Flipper’) and puns on globalized Russian culture (‘Che Bourashka’). Rigid mathematical thought overlaps with infantile babble—for some the first reaction will be to turn away. It’s likely they’ll return, though, befuddled, slightly irritated, hypnotized:


Animals gather around the song. They listen, tilting
their heads.
They have large eyes. We can count the animals.


We might call this song ‘Proof by Irritation,’ in that it nips at concretized proofs until emotive, profound clearings such as the above emerge. They enjoy a greater resonance in Ostashevsky’s work, framed (crookedly) by such relentlessly absurd shtick. Stanzas are filed under playfully oversimplified headings like ‘Some Questions’ and ‘Some Answers,’ convulsing petulantly in their containers. In ‘Some Comments’ (the home of the previous quote) the poem pulls off an agile reflection upon itself: countable animals assemble like some burgeoning readership. Ostashevsky’s combinations produce an unfamiliar sound, to which we tilt our heads dumbly. Something presses on our nerves: we would still like to protect philosophy, not admit that the logical mind could be cracked so easily (and crudely). Yet, to be fair, The Life and Opinions of DJ Spinoza is neither purely denigration nor acceptance of the thinkers from whom Ostashevsky draws. In total, the poems disclose a sort of skewed reverence for these ideas by throwing into relief their strange relevance in the present.


We live in a multitude of realities, each composed of several overlapping spheres (or a compound of tetrahedra… perhaps with a hole through the center). Therefore it is a formidable task when asked, in DJ Spinoza, to ‘Imagine a language/ that is like the world.’ It would then have to change in relation to our personal use; it would belong to everyone and no one, oscillating between things, materials, speakers, listeners. Eventually we arrive at the conclusion that ‘it is not like anything that is like a language,’ or at least according to our traditional understanding. No longer allowed refuge in the systematization of thought, language begins to flirt with delirium. ‘The woodchuck and the woodpecker/ walked away really bumming. /Alas! No two species of animals/ have a language in common.’ Any sense of solidarity in language is revealed to be quite tenuous. Despite shared use of materials, we are left instead with an amusing void.


Pressing further the border between comedy and poetry, Ostashevsky forces us to reevaluate what is legitimate in a poem. Of course, less blatant comedic styles have already earned their linguistic justification in poetry. “It’s good that you can laugh: it proves that you’re modern,” said W.C. Williams during a lecture at Berkeley years ago. Yet to expand on existing strands in comedic poetry would be, for Ostashevsky, a far too logical result of cause and effect. Instead, he sweeps along the lower crust for the cringe-inducing lines. If anything his jokes might deserve credit for evoking a strange sort of guilt-by-association (an amusing spin on reader-participation). Am I actually part of a culture that has produced the following?


I rock the mic like tequila rocks lime!
Do you rock the mic like tequila rocks lime?
You don’t rock the mic like tequila rocks lime.
So shut up and let me improve your mind.


Bouts of ill-advised faux rapping recall Beastie Boys style self-parody. Yet even during its most abrasive phases, DJ Spinoza encourages us, inexplicably, to grope for more redeeming qualities, as if we have already been drawn into this world, as if we feel partially responsible. The extra-low brow is not simply a way of countering the high seriousness of academicism, nor is it some romantic-populist yearning. Instead this text wraps itself around our reading and we feel at least partially isolated. These poems should not be championed for their zaniness or hilarity, but rather for amplifying the detached and pathetic literary character as especially unfunny. It does not blend into the crowd but is rather catapulted into the latter’s nexus.


The Life and Opinions of DJ Spinoza never truly stabilizes or becomes reified. It shifts from awkward to profound, to ludicrous without any detectable itinerary. Loud, abrasive, lunatic rhymes give way to a soft, stilted voice, only for the poem to end on a rather abrupt note: ‘He sits down. / Nothing happens. / The poem ends.’ It conjures up the unresolved tensions of Daniil Kharms, whose writing Ostashevsky has translated in the wonderful Oberiu anthology. Yet whereas Kharms seemed to reject narrative for formal concerns, Ostashevsky disrupts narrative by excavating its most regrettable qualities. He deals heavily in philosophy, yet repeatedly point to its absurdities. Why force all of these contradictions into coexistence? Eugene Ostashevsky offers ‘Some Answers’:


The beginning of number is song. The song
is not about anything. It gave birth to the world.
The world is not about anything.

Timothy Leonido

Timothy Leonido

Timothy Leonido is a writer, editor, and sound artist. He currently lives in Philadelphia.

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