Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Sino y signo

Has hablado bastante y no te agrada
No te gusta mostrar tus vísceras secretas
Y sin embargo vuelves a caer en ello
Protestas y repites la causa que te irrita

Hablas te exhibes te rompes la carne
Y permites la entrada a los ojos intrusos
Quieres cortar las cuerdas que te unen a los otros
Y vuelves a anudarlas
Cojes el aire lo haces tuyo y lo regalas
Conquistas horizontes y los repartes
Haces luz en la sombra y la entregas
Como un paquete de soledades arrepentidas de su propia fuerza
¿Qué entierro es éste en que te entierras
En los pechos extraños?

Te exaltas y te ablandas
Te ablandas y te haces flecha de corazón
Más ciego que cualquier huracán
Hablas y protestas
Y vuelves a hablar y protestar
Te haces árbol y das tus hojas a los vientos
Te haces piedra y das tu dureza a los ríos
Te haces mundo y te disuelves en el mundo
Oh voluntad contraria en todo instante
Favor de tierra y grandes fríos y calores
Todo grano ¡malhaya! lleva signos futuros
Un destino de ola que debe hacer su ruido
Y morir dulcemente

Has hablado bastante y estas triste
Quisieras un país de sueño
Donde las lunas broten de la tierra
Donde los árboles tengan luz propia
Y te saluden con su voz afectuosa que tu espalda tiemble
Donde el agua te haga señas
Y las montañas te llamen a grandes voces
Y luego quisieras confundirte en todo
Y tenderte en un descanso de pájaros extáticos
En un bello país de olvido
Entre ramajes sin viento y sin memoria
Olvidarte de todo y que todo te olvide.

(Vicente Huidobro, El ciudadano del olvido)

Monday, June 7, 2010

More memories of Soria...

As I sit at home on a miserably cold and wet Queens' Birthday weekend I am reminded of a similarly wintry day six months ago spent wandering along the banks of the River Duero near the Castillian town of Soria. Since blogging here has been fairly sporadic of late, I thought I would put up a few more photos from my visit to the spiritual home of the poet Antonio Machado...

Monday, April 19, 2010

Vázquez Montalbán and the case against rationalism in philosophy and art

In Madrid earlier this year I had the good fortune to pick up a second-hand copy of Manuel Vázquez Montalbán's 1970 philosophical essay-play-poetry collection-novella Manifiesto subnormal, sadly long since out of print and as far as I know never translated into English. Vázquez Montalbán is of course best known for his Pepe Carvalho detective series, about the eponymous Catalán gastronome and ex-communist/ex-CIA (yes, such things are apparently possible!) private investigator.

However Vázquez Montalban was also an astute cultural critic with many fascinating insights into Spain during the epoch of 'tardefranquismo' ('late Francoism') and subsequent 'transition' to liberal democracy as well as the world of Spanish far left politics, in which he was an active participant - beginning with his involvement with the Guevarist FLP in the 1960s and continuing with his lengthy career as a perennial dissident in the Unifed Socialist Party of Cataluña during the 70s and 80s (Vázquez Montalbán sided with the Eurocommunists during the PSUC's interminable faction fights but at the same time liked to satirise leading Euros such as Santiago Carillo - the 'born again' former hardline Stalinist - mercilessly). Vázquez Montalbán's collection of essays Crónica sentimental de la transición and his 1985 novel El pianista - charting the hopes, tragicomic failures and disillusionment of a generation of Spanish leftists - are essential reading for any serious student of the period.

Manifiesto is, as its publisher's blurb proudly proclaims, a book that is impossible to categorise in terms of genre. Nor is it easy to take away from it a neat didactic message, since the author characteristically satirises even those philosophical positions which he himself would be most inclined to defend. At the heart of it though is a call for leftists to overturn the time-honoured equation of Reason and rational philosophy with revolutionary politics and art and to celebrate instead what Vázquez Montalbán refers to as "la subnormalidad" and "la consciencia subnormal" - terms which I am not quite sure how to translate because nowhere does the author actually explicitly define them, but is perhaps closest to the standpoint of the Surrealist school in its delight in the irrational and absurd.

As Vázquez Montalbán writes "the prestige of Reason has been one of the cultural institutions most firmly established by the bourgeoisie" - and with good reason, since it encourages artists and philosophers to abstract themselves from reality - a reality that will now be mediated through the obfuscticating lens of ideology and false unity. Capitalism has also devised a system - humanist liberal democracy - which is capable of embracing and co-opting its own Hegelian artisitc antithesis, the aesthetic of desencanto or disillusionment, so long as it agrees to play by capitalism's own house rules. Vázquez Montalbán's message is that artists and would-be revolutionaries should try to resist this process of co-option or "recuperación" from "subnormalidad" into the capitalist cultural industry, although he is quite frankly pessimistic about the chances of success.

In the theatrical farce which forms the central section of the book, a dialogue plays out between a number of characters including Daniel Cohn-Bendit, Theodor Adorno, Leonid Brezhnev, the Marx brothers as well as an anonymous narrator (whose views seem more akin to the Stalinist cultural operative Lukács than to Vázquez Montalbán himself - as evidenced by the condemnation of surrealism as "a false cultural terrorism that distracted the attention of philistines from the new literature of social protest influenced by Naturalism"!!).

In what follows, it is Theodor Adorno who emerges in the most sympathetic light. In response to Cohn-Bendit's simplistic revolutionary street-theatre and the narrator's defence of the doctrine of Third Period Stalinist "social-fascism" Adorno declares that he has broken with all such "grand rationalisations" because he wants above all to survive and sees little chance of the socialist revolution succeeding. As he says "without doubt the old dame [capitalism] will pass away, but she will have lived long enough to corrupt both her children and her antagonists."

Summing up, Adorno seems to echo Vázquez Montalbán's exhortations in favour of "subnormalidad" as he proclaims "Reason has prostituted itself - long live Feeling!"

Monday, March 15, 2010

The poetics of language

¿Habéis notado la fuerza especial, el ambiente casi creador que rodea a las poesías escritas en una lengua que comenzáis a balbucear? Encontráis maravaillosos poemas que un año después os harán sonreír...

[Have you noticed the special power, the almost divine atmosphere that surrounds poetry written in a language in which you are only just beginning to stammer? You come across marvellous poems that, only a year later, will make you smile...]

- Vicente Huidobro, 'El Creacionismo' (1925)

The way in which readers approach poetry in a language not their own is (unsurprisingly) a source of great interest to me, given my field of research. Huidobro in the quoted passage above sums up very well, I feel, the way in which those who approach a language as outsiders are often able to find a poetic beauty in certain words that is not so apparent to native speakers habituated to their everyday usage.

Just recently I came across an excellent work which explores this subject in somewhat greater depth and attempts to explain the phenomenon of heightened sensitivity to certain types of poetic language among non-native speakers. In an MA thesis entitled Let There Be Revolution: The Destructive Creacionismo of Vicente Huidobro and Gertrude Stein, Lisa Senneff notes that
"...when one is surrounded foreign language for the first time, the bonds between word and object are fragile; the connection between signifier and the signified is shaky and unclear."

Senneff goes on to argue that this awareness of the arbitrary relationship between language and meaning was a major factor pushing both Huidobro and Stein towards a poetic model that deliberately sought to undermine and de-familiarise these relationships in the mind of the reader, thus freeing artistic creation entirely from any relationship with 'objective reality'. Read the whole thesis here.

Monday, February 22, 2010

Antonio Machado and the uses of Spanish history

As I've noted on other occasions (see for instance here and here) the poetry of the Spanish writer and "martyr" for the Republican cause Antonio Machado is both endlessly fascinating and, at the same time, deeply problematic in the way it manages to combine progressive leftist political sentiments with a Romantic attachment to symbols of Spain's imperialist past and ideas of Castillian supremacy. Yet, at the same time there is a powerful argument that poetry is not an exercise in instrumental reason and as such should be judged solely according to political criteria (a fact that I think also makes it hard to dismiss anti-rationalist philosophers such as Unamuno and Zambrano so hard to dismiss).
Looking down the River Dureo towards the Hermitage of San Saturio

I was reminded of this paradox during my visit last month to Soria, high up at the eastern end of the Castillian meseta near the headwaters of the River Duero, where Machado wrote his most famous collection of poems - Campos de Castilla - and where he met, married and then buried his young wife Leonor. While the strident literary nationalism that inhabits much of this collection is disconcerting, when actually physically confronted with the landscape which Machado describes in these poems it is difficult not to feel moved in a similarly irrational, 'Romantic' way... Somehow this desolate, rocky terrain - with its accumulated millenia of ruined cities, fortresses and monasteries - speaks to you in a way that the empty vistas of 'Godzone' can never even hope to aspire to...
The ruins of the 12th century monastery of San Juan del Duero

While the town of Soria itself is perhaps today a little too eager to cash-in on the legacy of its most famous resident (as evidenced by the 'Cervecería Machado' I encountered in the Calle de los Estudios which sold only Belgian beer...) and has lost some of its poetic 'lustre', a short walk across to the other side of the river you find yourself amidst the familiar vistas so beloved by the poet:

He vuelto a ver los álamos dorados,
álamos del camino en la ribera
del Duero, entre San Polo y San Saturio,

tras las murallas viejas de Soria - barbacana
hacia Aragón, en castellana tierra-.

Estos chopos del río, que acompañan

con el sonido de sus hojas secas

el son del agua, cuando el viento sopla,

tienen en sus cortezas
grabadas iniciales que son nombres

de enamorados, cifras que son fechas.
¡Alamos del amor que ayer tuvisteis

de ruiseñores vuestras ramas llenas;

álamos que seréis mañana liras

del viento perfumado en primavera;

álamos del amor cerca del agua

que corre y pasa y sueña;

alamos de las márgenes del Duero,

conmigo vais, mi corazón os lleva!

('Campos de Soria' VIII)

Along the banks of the river it is also possible to see the remains of the monastery of San Polo, which belonged to the Templar military order until their forcible dissolution in the 14th century, and about which the patron saint of Spanish Romanticism Gustavo Bécquer dedicated his gothic tales 'El Monte de los Ánimas' and 'El Rayo de Luna'.
The gatehouse of the monastery of San Polo, which sits astride the old road between San Juan del Duero and the Hermitage of San Saturio

In the midst of all this history, it is hard to begrudge Machado's appropriation of Castile's store of cultural and historical capital in the pursuit of his modernista literary project, even though the nationalist overtones make his poetry difficult to defend from an objective, political point of view. Perhaps the real problem for Machado (and his fellow Republican intellectuals) was not so much their tendency to appeal to nationalist sentimentality and a rose-tinted view of Spain's military past, but rather the fact that Franco's Nationalists were simply more credible representatives of this historical tradition. What was needed therefore was not so much a simple appeal to history but rather, as Juan Goytisolo advocates in his novel Juan sin tierra, a systematic re-writing or re-imagining of the national past, which promotes dissident figures such as Enrique IV (the reputedly - at least according to according to Gregorio Marañon - homosexual and morisco-phile half brother of Isabel 'la Católica') at the expense of the dominant "Golden Age" narrative handed down to us by authors such as Menéndez Pidal.

In this sense then, it might be said that the problem is not so much a surfeit of irrationality or Romanticism on the part of Machado, but rather that in his pursuit of these strategies he simply does not go far enough...


I couldn't conclude this brief soliloquy on Spanish left nationalism without mentioning the website of the Castilian federation of the Stalinist Partido Comunista de los Pueblos de España, which amusingly fights for the self-determination of Castile (along with all the other "oppressed nations" of Spain) and 'liberation' from the rule of EU and US imperialism (since they view Spain as essentially an exploited neo-colony of these latter). Somewhat scarily, in large parts of provincial Spain (such as La Rioja, where I spent the majority of time during my recent trip to the Iberian peninsular) these guys seem to be just about the only organised far left force!