Idle Things Bagration

Caravaggio: Saint Jerome Writing, 1606. Galleria Borghese, Rome.

Caravaggio: Saint Jerome Writing, 1606. Galleria Borghese, Rome.

It is indeed odd, even unkind, to speak of oneself. I shall write, then, about languages. We know that French is ripe with delectable sounds; Italian is considered lively; we think German harsh. There are those with an ardent penchant for Slavic or Eastern tongues; on occasion, a language is learnt for the wrong reasons: not to enjoy its literature (this should be the main cause), but to engage in liaisons of trade or to share the sadness of hatred: I have met, even though this may seem far-fetched, deeply Anglophobic people who set about the learning of a language, any language, against English. Intellectual austerity is also a form of pauperism.

I have written too much in Spanish. Those words do not mean fatigue or surfeit, but extreme leniency: nothing I have penned down deserves to stay. Borges felt his fate was la lengua castellanael bronce the Francisco de Quevedo (the Spanish (Castilian) language, Francisco de Quevedo’s bronze). It is argued that Kafka’s parents spoke a western dialect of Yiddish; it was mockingly known as Mauseldeutsch, Moses’ German. With anticipatory prudence they urged their children to employ the more purely Germanic variant. Józef Korzeniowski, before becoming Joseph Conrad, a Pole born in today’s Ukraine under the rule of Warsaw, conversed in half a dozen tongues prior to settling down in London and in English, not without uncertain comfort.

Until Shakespeare, English was a language used to obscurity: Chaucer’s tales had hardly been able to blow the torpor away. It was the heyday of French-speaking courts, the Spanish Empire, the survival of Latin, transformed into a degenerate lingua franca. The slow rise of England presented us not only with Hamlet but also with a king who dies begging for a saddle, Gibbon’s painstaking efforts (the awful revolution), the biblical emulation of prophets that Lincoln produced at Gettysburg, Churchill’s fierce promise; Wilde’s recitation of that unjustly half-forgotten poem that deserved every praise, Ravenna, composed in the manner of Pope (Byron, thy crowns are ever fresh and green); Byron’s line that remains happily and sternly untranslatable: She walks in beauty, like the night. Robert Frost thus reasoned: Poetry is that which is lost out of both prose and verse in translation.

Cervantes advised historians that they should be: “exact, truthful, and wholly free from passion, and neither interest nor fear, hatred nor love, should make them swerve from the path of truth, whose mother is history, rival of time, storehouse of deeds, witness for the past, example and counsel for the present, and warning for the future.” It is wise for writers to heed the counsel: to speak, whatever the language fate has chosen for them to write in, a common idiom, that of longing.


The Meaning of a Cult

Franz von Stuck: The Kiss of the Sphinx, 1894. Szépmüvészeti Múzeum, Budapest

Franz von Stuck: The Kiss of the Sphinx, 1894. Szépmüvészeti Múzeum, Budapest.

The twenty-third chapter of Joseph Pearce’s biography of perhaps the greatest playwright who still casts his brilliant shadow from the gloomy depths of the XIX century, Oscar Fingal O’Flaherty Wills Wilde, opens with a concise description of the shriekingly gloating reception with which the press of Victorian days celebrated the author’s downfall in the final weeks of May, 1895. The News of the World gleefully announced the swan song of aestheticism: “The aesthetic cult, in the nasty form, is over”. The sentence left unanswered the question of the possibility of the existence of a decent, law-abiding, or, at the very least, just naughty likeness of the cult. The crushing of Oscar Wilde did not merely amount to the loss of a literary genius’ will to resume production once the wrath of society had been sated, but also the plunge into lethargy (maybe, to some extent,  even to this day) of the artist as the creator of a meaningful, universal, masterfully crafted work of art and their being replaced by less-than-passable displayers of ideology, relativism and tantrums.  To the detractors of aestheticism, the despicable term is to be confused with  decadence, even the irrational, even the overtly grotesque.

An almost ludicrous finger pointed against aestheticism is that it leaves the masses, that sacred entity so carefully courted by populists, locked out of the inner sanctum the true aesthete dwells in, and rejoices in the vacuity of a jargon and a philosophy only affordable to those initiated and their acolytes. Thus, it pays little homage to the fact that, in the acrid view of the aesthete-hater, the most essential, soul-searching aspects of art are always folkish and uncomplicated, and should demand just the candor of a safe and sane mind to be reasonably -and for the sake of spiritual cleansing, also untarnishedly- enjoyed. The obvious result of this recipe suitable for politicians on a presidential ticket is that the masses, so cherished by paternalistic regimes, have almost invariably been put on a diet whose main components have been corniness, prudishness, boredom and plain rubbish.  Mandarin elitism, a typical label strapped on aestheticism, found an unexpected supporter both in the apocalyptic fantasies of members of the John Birch Society as well as in left leaning would-be scholars who maintain Shakespeare was an anti-Semitic bigot who basked in the telling of Shylock’s misfortunes.

No bigger favor has ever been so lavishly granted by anyone else than Harold Bloom in his defense of the aesthetic qualities an artist and their work should seek as desirable, even wildly basic, to have his or her oeuvre hailed as something that stands out above the mediocrity of chance. However, I humbly beg to differ with him as refers to the diminished place he assigns to politics in the land of an artist’s priorities. I tend to believe few topics are too tiny or contemptible to be disregarded as bothersome mirages, if (and only if) one’s talent is huge enough to mingle them all and come up with a treat that resembles original beauty.  While the readings a poem may be subjected to can be unlimited, its share of merit, by aesthetic standards, although restrained by the burdens of human imperfection, is to remain its greatest asset, for even the most far-fetched of interpretations will bestow no added value upon artistic illiteracy. The wittiest and wisest contemporary critic, admirer or simpleton eagerly or painstakingly consuming A Woman of No Importance or The Tragedy of King Richard III in their respective eras was unable to predict how the public of nowadays would greet the best of either Wilde or Shakespeare.

As mentioned by historian Arthur Herman in his The Idea of Decline in Western History, the murderous rivalry between corruption and correctness, vice and virtue, decay and healthiness has been embodied, since the years of birth of romantic nationalism, in the split between Zivilisation and Kultur, between sophistication and simplicity, between sheer beauty striving to become meaningful form and plain form struggling to appeal as didactic beauty. To all intents and purposes, these meager lines wholeheartedly gamble on the blemished, decadent, corrupted and ill-reputed conception of that which we call beautiful.




Domenico Peterlini: Dante in exile, 1860. Palacio Pitti, Florence.

Domenico Peterlini: Dante in exile, 1860. Palacio Pitti, Florence.

Boccaccio imagines ten youths, seven maidens and three lads, patiently sheltered at Fiesole, fleeing from the plague. To shorten the fears of the night he has each of them tell a story during the long days they must remain in hiding. The birth of the Decamerone is also the rebirth of the short story: during those hours under refuge paragraphs by Petronius and parts of the Hezar-afsana (which Bocaccio did not hear of), the one thousand and one myths nestled in Scheherazade’s mouth, came alive again.

I am unfortunate enough to reside in a country where soccer is tantamount to a religion whose faithful are strictly observant; once again I must endure the never late-coming pestilence of ball playing, as these grown-up children like to amuse themselves. Die enorme sozialpsychologische Bedeutung des Fußbalsports ist also auf ein illusionäres Wir-Gefühl angewiesen, Gerhard Vinnai wrote in 2007 (The enormous psychosocial significance of soccer is so dependent on a false sense of belonging); the quote is included in a brief essay, Zur Ideologischen Funktion des Fußbalsports, which comes as an addition to his 1970 admonitory work, Fußbalsports als Ideologie. Juan José Sebreli saw in him a source from which to compose that book of his that turned him into anathema to so many erstwhile friends and followers, The Era of Soccer. Soccer as an ideology of nationalism, ideology of hired violence, ideology of superfluous and even criminally excessive expenditure and ideology of stupidity. A rarity that bestows on the reader the beauty of a translation, Bill Buford’s magnificent work, Among the Thugs, is prodigiously rendered into Spanish as Entre los bárbarosAmong the Barbarians. Soccer as an ideology of barbarism.

To run away from soccer, even if peacefully and in a respectful manner, is seen as an offense by the zealous supporter, the self-righteous fan. Soccer, in many countries, has become an obligation of fervor, a mandate of enthusiasm. There is, then, no other resource but flight and self-imposed exile. Luckily for us, we know the day on which this petty tyrant will die, even if only for four short years.


Sontag on Borges

borgesOn June 14, 1996 Susan Sontag published an open letter in loving memory of Jorge Luis Borges, whose death had taken place 10 years before in Geneva, the city he revered as the nest of his happiness as a youngster. Sontag praised Borges (nothing else can be done as regards his genius), lamented his passing, set him as an example of unselfishness, courtesy, generosity and, above all, literary dexterity, a writer to be worshiped by other writers who should also aspire to become his disciples. She also showed fear as regards the fate of the book: it was a time when no one suspected the future multiplication of platforms where to enjoy reading, but darkly dreaded the disappearance of the written word. No such thing has happened; most likely no such thing will ever happen. Perhaps I am being too optimistic, but I do believe somehow, anyhow, literature will again rise from wizened ashes as it did after the fall of the Urbs.

I remember it well, or so I think: Winston Smith was under torture. He did not concede when taunted about the overwhelming power of the State; he retorted that there would always be a way for mankind to fend off the heel stomping on a human face. Orwell, fearing the seemingly unstoppable rise of Stalinism, described his agony and his defeat, maybe to rouse the rebellion in those who despised oppression. May it be so; may the long reign of the book, now under various, diverse, even conflicting shapes, survive until the last reader is gone, and even longer.