We are perhaps as well situated as we’ve ever been to solve the curiously tempting and elusive riddle of Edward Gorey. His illustrative style and design sensibility—a precious iteration of befuddlement and Gothicism—presage twenty-first-century trends in the comic arts, East and West. Of course, the very framing of such riddles—this artist over that artist, this presumed history over that untold history—is a suspect business, and Gorey disdained explanatory self-aggrandizements.
Floating Worlds: The Letters of Edward Gorey and Peter F. Neumeyer is a trove of correspondence between Gorey and Neumeyer, a Harvard professor of children’s literature with whom Gorey collaborated on a few curio books that were brought out by a textbook publisher. In a gloriously realized edition, the correspondence—postcards, letters, even envelopes—is rich with insight into the aesthetic underpinnings of Gorey, an artist notoriously close-lipped as to his creative ideology. Indeed, the “aesthetic maunderings” of Floating Worlds not only render the most complete portrait of Gorey available but also give readers something very much like an algebraic formula of his sensibility. We are presented with a Gorey who is compelled to justify, however indirectly, his creative rationale.
Neumeyer and Gorey met in 1968, when the editor and vice president of the textbook publisher Addison-Wesley arranged for an outing on his sailboat, hoping that Gorey would find an affinity with Neumeyer’s concept for a children’s book about a boy and his fly. Instead, Gorey fell off the dock and dislocated his shoulder. The calamity was auspicious in a Goreyesque way; at the hospital, Neumeyer and Gorey set to work, embarking on the first illustrations for what would become Donald and the… and initiating the dialogue that would spill into a two-year correspondence.
In that correspondence, which spans curt missives and lofty discourses, the two men swap insights on ballet, the Beatles, Lillian Gish, kite-flying, and pancakes; they cite contemporary authors, from Eldridge Cleaver to Flann O’Brien, and ponder the lives of their cats. For an age without the internet, the ranging discussion is immaculately simpatico. The landscape that emerges is akin to that of Gorey’s works: a frisky sea without much in the way of waves. Gorey views the narrative of his life much as he views that of his stories—as secondary to the welcome distraction of life’s disturbances. Individuality is subordinate to the bumps on the journey. “There is a strong streak in me,” he confides to Neumeyer, “that wishes not to exist and really does not believe that I do.”
Gorey’s everywhere-and-nowhere presentiment is the boon of Floating Worlds. A determined uncertainty rattles him through the collaboration and the publication of his own books, even producing an encompassing theory of the arts. As he writes to Neumeyer in February 1968:
The thing is, and here we come to E. Gorey’s Great Simple Theory About Art (which he has never tried to communicate to anybody else until now, so prepare for Severe Bafflement), that on the surface they are so obviously those situations that it is very difficult to see that they really are about something else entirely. This is the theory, incidentally, that anything that is art, and it’s the way I tell it, is presumably about some certain thing, but is really always about something else, and it’s no good having one without the other, because if you just have the something it is boring, and if you just have the something else it’s irritating.
Fourteen months later, musing upon a preface to an anthology of Japanese court poetry, Gorey finds himself too close to the mark, and fumbles and apologizes: “There must be a something which is above and beyond (I’m putting this badly as always) what the poem says and the words that say it if the poem is to be a good one.”
In Gorey’s assessment, the explanation is a vulgar approximation, accurate but inexact. As if throwing up his hands, he amends the thought, simultaneously embracing the mystery of art and spirit and providing his own last word on the nonsense and puissance of legacy: “There is the vaguely Zen thing about before Zen trees are trees, mountains are mountains, etc. which I’m sure you’re familiar with, and then how as you get into Zen trees are no longer trees, etc. but then when you have got satori or whatever, trees are again trees, etc. but somehow different.”
In 2012, Gorey is as singular and enigmatic as ever: category-less, and without redemptive justification. Floating Worlds is the keystone that makes the idea of Gorey Studies conceivable, but it is a biographical progression of its own, moving from a Taoist theory of art into a happenstance appreciation of life, conveying a message peculiarly of-the-moment in the era of Occupy Everything: that the greatest act of resistance is being; that in our eclecticism, in the spiky foibles of our differentness, a better life awaits. As an inaugural work, it is fitting that Floating Worlds imparts the effervescence of two men perpetually beginning.