Homo Irrealis: Essays by Andre Aciman 2021

This is a remarkable book that spoke to me in so many ways and on so many levels.  It’s not an easy book, beginning with its title in which Aciman catergorizes himself as Homo irrealis, where irrealis replaces sapiens, i.e. wisdom is replaced by a “verbal mood that indicates that certain events have not happened, may never happen, or should or must or are indeed desired to happen, but for which there is no indication that they will ever happen….all best expressed in this book as the might-be and the might-have-been.”

Aciman’s work as a memorist, novelist, and essayist is deeply influenced by his sense of ‘non-belonging’.  As a Sephardic Jew growing up in Alexandria, Egypt, expelled to Italy, and finally ending  up in America, Aciman is a man in search of his place in the world.  A man whose essays often refer to women he has loved, he is also the recipient of prizes for gay literature, and on and on.  His exploration in these essays of what might have been resonated with me quite deeply as I often think about who I might have been and what I might have done had I made different choices.  In a visit to Rome where he lived as an adolescent and as a young man in his early 20’s, he revisits his old neighborhood and muses “Am I returning to prove that I’ve overcome this place and put it behind me?  Or do I return to play with time and make believe that nothing essential has really changed, either in me or in the city, that I am still the same young man and that an entire lifetime has yet to be lived, which also means that the years between me-then and me-now haven’t really happened, or don’t really matter and shouldn’t count, and I am still owed so much?  Or perhaps I’ll come back to reclaim a me-interrupted. Something that was sown here, and then, because I left so soon, it never blossomed but couldn’t die. Everything I’ve done in life suddenly pales and threatens to come undone.  I have not lived my life.  I’ve lived another.”  Very heavy stuff, but ‘stuff’ I’ve often thought about and wondered.

His focus in the book is ‘art’ as he tries to understand this time-warp, this potential of multiple Acimans, this encyclopedia of possible lives lived.  In chapters on writers as diverse as W. G. Sebald (one of my all-time favorites), Joyce, Proust, Cavafy, and Pessoa, on several movies by Eric Rohmer and The Apartment,  on the New York artist John Sloan and the French painter Corot, and one chapter in which he moves from Julia Child’s souffle directions to Beethoven, Aciman cites the arts as the way Homo irrealis deals with these multiple potentialities.  He ascribes great power and importance to these creative efforts which he feels brings form, design, logic, and meaning to the chaos of existence.  He states that ‘Symmetry is how we manufacture the illusion, the impression, the glint of meaning in our otherwise meaningless and chaotic lives.  Irony itself is nothing more than the design our perceptions impose on things that our intellect already knows have no design whatsoever.”

These are not easy essays to read and ponder, but I think they are important enough to warrant the time to do so and to re-read for their depth of thought and their exploration of life, chance, choice, time, all within the context of mortality and finite existence.  I plan to return to Aciman again soon.