Saturday, May 12, 2012

Week 14, Garcia Lorca, Borges, Neruda

Notes on Federio Garcia Lorca
Lorca was a tragic figure – a Spanish Andalusian poet who was executed by General Francisco Franco's fascist squads at the beginning of the Spanish Civil War in 1936 (when Lorca was 38 years old), a war that Hitler used as a trial run for further violence, a training ground for his own army.  Franco put down the leftists in Spain and continued until the early 1970s as Spain's dictatorial ruler.  Truth and art are often casualties of war, and Garcia Lorca's bitter end proves it.

Still, he left behind a lot of writing, and what's included in our anthology is the "Lament for ISM."  Mejias was not only a bullfighter but a Renaissance man, learned and cultured.  That's the capacity in which FGL knew and mourned him.  A traditional elegy laments and memorializes a beloved person – consider Milton's "Lycidas" for his Cambridge University friend Edward King, or Tennyson's In Memoriam AHH for Arthur Henry Hallam, or Shelley's "Adonais," an elegy for John Keats.

Structurally, the poem is interesting, with its deep-song refrain of "at five o'clock in the afternoon."  That time is the point at which ISM's whole life comes together and ends.  He was gored by a bull and it took a while for him to die.  Gangrene was involved.  The first section concerns the events leading up to "five" when ISM passes away from his wounds.

In translation as in the original, there's a mixed quality to the poem.  The images are both starkly material and beautiful – the processes that lead to death aren't pretty, and FGL confronts that fact.  To get any lasting value from his friend's death, and properly pay his respects, he must regard death as a brute fact and acknowledging the dissolution of the body is part of that.  Near the poem's beginning, FGL covers the things one does in Spanish culture when a person is about to die.  A lot of what's recounted in this vein is not aesthetically pleasing, of course: death lays eggs in the wound, gangrene sets in, and so forth.  There is an element of realism here not entirely unlike Flaubert's description of Emma Bovary's death by arsenic poisoning.

In the second section, which begins with the speaker's perspective – "I will not see it" – we come to an attitude of defiant refusal, or denial.  He hasn't yet accepted the fact that ISM is dead; he must accept this w/o flowery rhetoric eventually.  At line 78, we get a sense of the perspective of ISM himself; that perspective is confusing, rendered in alienation: "he sought for his beautiful body and encountered his open wound."  He looks for what he was, but he has already been transfigured.  The body and its processes begin to open out into death itself, blood spurting on the ground and everywhere. 

Blood is mentioned often, and it spills out into the natural environs.  Natural dissolution has begun and must take its course.  See line 124: "Now he sleeps without end …. now his blood comes out singing …."  The second section ends with such references, and still the speaker says, "I will not see it."  Blood is life's source, but here exsanguination connects the human body with the natural environment.  Perhaps the need here is to face up to the stark reality, the eternity, of death itself.  Blood may connect us, but to say that isn't to say that the conscious self or ego survives the dissolution of the body.  Consciousness seems here to be extinguished utterly: ISM "sleeps without end" ().  Admitting this will be the precondition for paying a worthy tribute to the bullfighter. 

So if consciousness doesn't last, what does?  Sections 3 and 4 seem like they're going to continue the theme of dissolution: "We are here …" and "All is finished," etc.  But they are moving us forward along with the poet.  One of the striking things about confronting the body of a beloved person is that the body becomes stone-like in its coldness, a dead person becomes like stone.  ISM lies upon the stone as if he becomes one with it – the opposite of a soft, living body.  But the stone won't dissolve anytime soon, while the body will quickly perish and decay. 

In the last few sections, it's revealed that much of what we try to do by way of memorializing the dead winds up instead paying tribute to the obliteration of the beloved.  An old gravestone becomes a marker of forgetting rather than remembrance.  In ancient cemeteries, they used to dig up the bodies buried long before to make way for the newly dead.  Hamlet is a fine example of that: the sexton is digging up an already-occupied space (Yorick, among others) to make way for the body of Ophelia. 

In the last part of the poem, we are told that "the bull does not know you …" and that ISM has "died forever," which becomes the refrain.  But FGL sings of him and his great qualities, among them the willingness to confront the prospect of death.  "No te conosce nadie, pero yo te canto."  What is known, then, what is being sung?  Not you but about you.  FGL apparently agrees with the traditional claim that poetry can do something stone can't.  See Shakespeare's Sonnet 55 to the fair young man, which begins

Not marble, nor the gilded monuments
Of princes, shall outlive this powerful rhyme;
But you shall shine more bright in these contents
Than unswept stone besmear'd with sluttish time.

It isn't Mejias the bullfighter but an archetype of excellence that will be sung and that will survive.  But the poet only gets to that point by admitting that the living, breathing person is in fact gone.  Once that's achieved, he comes round to the task of properly memorializing him as an archetype of grace, excellence and courage.  Death is the absolute limit that must be confronted, which on the poet's part entails a rejection of sentimentality or flowery rhyme.

Notes on Jorge Luis Borges
Borges was Argentinian born, and spent much time in Europe.  He fared badly during the regime of Juan Peron since Borges was more closely allied with the Left than the Peronistas were willing to tolerate.  See page 2412: "In 1946 the Peron regime removed him from the librarian's post" and moved him over to the job of "chicken inspector."  Buck buck buck!!  But later on he fared much better.  In each life some chickens will cluck.  His amanuensis in later years, by the way, was Alberto Manguel, who wrote an interesting book called A History of Reading. 

Borges is the antithesis of a realist, though the present story reads clearly enough, and is rather like detective fiction: here's the official account, and here's the truth about how the info was obtained to bomb this little town.  He rejects the idea that art must copy life, must tie itself to a realistic representation of life in all its banality and ideological pushiness.  He's more of a philosophical artist, a postmodernist of sorts.  A realistic author like Jane Austen or Gustave Flaubert, after all, writes in the basic belief that life is intelligible and unified and that one can, therefore, represent it coherently and accurately, more or less in linear fashion, well-sketched and consistent characters, etc.  But maybe that's too tidy and excludes everything that doesn't add to the unity-and-coherence effect.  One ideological reason for this is that such an author may not really want things to change, though that's not entirely fair since you could say that first you have to recognize how things are in the first place.  Still, it's at least arguable that the realistic agenda ties one to or makes one complicit in the perpetuation of what is represented.  Borges as a man of the Left is interested in social and political change. 

Borges isn't describing a reality but many, but inventing new worlds upon worlds, promoting the free play of imagination.  That is a Surrealist thing to advocate in the name of change, and of course we often say that Borges inspired a great deal of Latin America's magical realism, itself a species of literary surrealism relying on the juxtaposition of alternate realities.  History, myth, any source of insight will be placed on the same level – a fact I believe the Norton editors refer to.  The productions of imagination are granted their own reality, probably because doing that encourages a brand of literature less tied to the way things supposedly "just are" and more allied with possibilities.

The story itself begins by referring to actual textbook history: "You will read that an attack … had to be postponed …"  But let Borges' narrator tell us what really happened.  This something that really happened sounds like it's scripted by the Freudian Unheimlich, the shock of recognition of something mysterious.  His own past is what causes this shock  -- his grandfather was writing a book about the constitution of time and eventuality.  He becomes a character in that book, at least by projection, as if the present had already been predicted.  Yu Tsun had no idea that he was going to find out about this secret of his ancestral past, but he finds out all the same.  He was in Staffordshire with Rudeberg and they are caught, pursued by the Irishman Madden, a detective who has been seeking them out.  Why has he done what he's done, acting as a spy?  "I wanted to prove to him that a yellow man could save his armies" (2415).  He possesses the name of the town that the Germans must bomb because it has an artillery park is Albert.  The only way to convey it is to kill a man named Stephen Albert since his last name matches.  Madden is looking for him, and Tsun knows he'll eventually be caught.  Can he get to Stephen Albert first?  That's the thing.  But Albert happens to be a sinologist.  Tsun can only get to the house by means of a maze, which is uncanny because that's what his grandfather's book was about.  Uncanny, and it all keeps coming back to the protagonists personally and to their own history, these great events of history.  See 2416 bottom.

What will we learn?  Well, we will learn why Tsun's grandfather wrote the book, why he made such a project of time.  The story's burden is to explain the alternate conception of reality and time that Tsun's grandfather had come up with.  It's Stephen Albert who enlightens Tsun about his own past.  I suppose the both of them are living out one version of reality.  The grandfather had, after all, been killed by the hand of another, just as Stephen Albert will be.  As it turns out, the book and the labyrinth are the same thing, and Albert has figured it out: an entirely different way of dealing with temporality, with narrative.  The garden was the "chaotic novel" (2419).  Well, as Yogi Berra says, "When you come to a fork in the road, take it."  In Borges-world, you can hardly do otherwise!  Or how about, "That place isn't popular anymore – everybody goes there"?  Many futures, infinite possibilities, and they all happen.  It's almost as if what the old man Pen' was on to was something like today's "string theory," which tries to bring together quantum mechanics and general relativity.

Notes on Pablo Neruda
As for politics, well, Neruda’s a Chilean.  As I’ve probably mentioned, America has a long and troubled history in central and south American politics.  We have generally supported the business and military interests that suit us, not necessarily the ones that would improve life for people in Chile, or Peru, or Costa Rica, or wherever in Latin America.  United Fruit was huge in central America, and in Chile, for instance, you had to reckon with Anaconda and its mining interests.  Such multinationals aren’t interested in nation-states except as a hindrance to the flow of capital where they – the companies – want it to go, a hindrance to how they want to deal with labor arrangements and standards, and so forth.  When Chile got its independence from Spain in the 1820’s, things may have looked promising, but then the Brits stepped in and got control of many of Chile’s resources, and of course the USA had interests of its own, so we tried to foil the Brits.  Anyway, it gets ugly and complicated, and the worst of it is probably our campaign to discredit Salvador Allende, Chile’s socialist but legitimately elected president, in 1973.  After that, Augusto Pinochet established a military dictatorship.  I don’t know that the CIA planned the coup itself, but it’s obvious that the US benefited from the change and that the militarists were encouraged by the money and effort we put into destabilizing Allende’s presidency.

Neruda became very much a “poet of the people.”  But that title seems to come in the course of his political development towards leftism.  He starts off as a love & nature poet, moves on to the impure/pure poetry debate, with the “impurists” being something like advocates for surrealist description of objects, not “ego-centered.”  That’s not the same thing as realism, of course: the point is rather, I think, to embrace the fully human and reject the too-well-arranged and centered self of the bourgeois ideologue, and to embrace heterogeneity of the object world.  See “Walking Around” for this influence (2443-44).  In André Breton’s 1924 Surrealist Manifesto, dreams and free imagination take precedence over waking, orderly reality and its prim associations between one thing and another.  In the visual arts, think Salvador Dalí.  Openness to contradiction is vital.  Neruda writes, 

"Let that be the poetry we search for: worn with the hand's obligations, as by acids, steeped in sweat and in smoke, smelling of lilies and urine, spattered diversely by the trades that we live by, inside the law or beyond it.

A poetry impure as the clothing we wear, or our bodies, soup-stained, soiled with our shameful behavior, our wrinkles and vigils and dreams, observations and prophesies, declarations of loathing and love, idylls and beasts, the shocks of encounter, political loyalties, denials and doubts, affirmations and taxes.

The holy canons of madrigal, the mandates of touch, smell, taste, sight, hearing, the passion for justice, sexual desire, the sea sounding, willfully rejecting and accepting nothing: the deep penetration of things in the transports of love, a consummate poetry soiled by the pigeon's claw, ice-marked and tooth-marked, bitten delicately with our sweatdrops and usage, perhaps. Till the instrument so restlessly played yields us the comfort of its surfaces, and the woods show the knottiest suavities shaped by the pride of the tool. Blossom and water and wheat kernel share one precious consistency: the sumptuous appeal of the tactile.

Source: "Toward an Impure Poetry,"  [date 1935] in Pablo Neruda, Five Decades: A Selection ( Poems: 1925-1970), translated by Ben Belitt (New York, Grove Press, 1974), pp. xxi-xxii.

But as he develops, Neruda’s belief in the material-reality-rendering possibilities of language really comes into full play: see “I’m explaining a few things” (2445-46).  Why is he rejecting flowery erotic or pastoral poesy?  Well, “Come and see the blood in the streets” of Spain during the Spanish Civil War of 1936-39.  That’s the imperative – to bring together the ordinary people against a fascist such as General Franco, whose rule, unfortunately, outlasted his allies Hitler and Mussolini right on through the early 1970s.

In the portion of Canto General that we have, the great Andes mountain, Macchu Picchu, at once seems to swallow up humanity and to become the symbol of its permanence, the permanence of Peruvian and indeed Latin American culture, in spite of what the Spaniards did to the Incas, Maya, Aztecs and other early civilizations.  “The Heights” and its imagery, as the editors point out, works against pure linearity as a principle of understanding history; the technique is instead to amalgamate or fuse many memories, many images, many periods into something like a unified vision founded on hope for the future.  This is a mainstay of Latin American literature, with its emphasis on what’s often called “magical realism.”  The past is never entirely lost; it haunts the present but also affords vision and opportunity to those who are willing to confront and embrace it rather than deny it.  All you need do is read Marquez’s Cento Años de Soledad to realize that.

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