With some excitement I announce the appearance, in Revista Letra Urbana, an online Spanish-language journal based in Miami (“a digital magazine of culture, science, and thought”), my first essay written for publication in Spanish. Undoubtedly the kind editors helped me to knock off a few rough edges, but on the whole it was a stimulating and enjoyable process and flowed rather more smoothly than I had anticipated. The essay, “Sobre la reconciliación de contrarios,” pays homage to the lives of three great literary artists on this 400th (or 30th) anniversary of their deaths: Cervantes and Shakespeare (d. 1616) and Borges (d. 1986) while addressing, through their literary work, what I believe to be a single literary/rhetorical project that they all shared in common: the reconciling of contraries.
Another invited essay, forthcoming in Hourglass Literary Magazine (which will appear in my original English and translated into the common language of Serbia, Bosnia, Croatia, and Montenegro), speaks to the same concern in a different and more personal way. Also, recently published in the local Perry County News, is a more strictly political attempt to counter Candidate Trump’s divisive rhetoric and to rehabilitate Hillary Clinton as not quite the rabid, corrupt liar as her enemies—and her own foibles—have made her, in the perception of so many voters.
Early responses, from the usual local suspects, have been predictably hostile, but one must accept that some opinions have already been etched in stone and will not be moved. I was directing myself to those whose views still might. The entire comment, in any case, published under the heading “Presidential Politics and Donald Trump,” can be read here:
The core of my argument, as expressed in the second-to-last paragraph of the newspaper column, goes as follows:
What this country needs is not to move toward an empty, depraved rhetoric of raw force and bluster. It is to move, instead, even if we never fully attain it, toward what one practical philosopher has called a “rhetoric of assent”; by which he means, not the empty eloquence of deceivers, but a kind of humane politics by which people of competing ideas and beliefs—deliberately and in cooperation with each other—seek a more complete understanding of the issues that face us; and labor, then, toward reasonable (if imperfect) solutions that move us as far as immediately possible in that direction.
From the Hourglass essay, “Small Graces,” I draw this brief provocation to thought:
What might happen, if in our civic conversation, we were actually to explore the unspoken nuance that hangs between our competing arguments? Might extended dialogue of this sort actually bring people of good will on either side of an argument to a new consciousness of what we do or might come to agree on?
And from Letra Urbana—hastily translated, excerpted, and recombined from the Spanish—the following, in the context of a proposed rhetoric of the subjunctive mood (what otherwise might be called “the Quixotic principle”):
an attitude and a rhetoric that considers, with a certain humility, the possibility of multiple realities or perspectives. It is to be hoped that this concept, this attitude of the subjunctive, might come to be a new rhetoric for all people, whose world is at risk of disintegrating by means of the collision of absolutes charged with so much violence: destructive illusions on the planes of politics, religion, and everything else. The antidote that I propose to those apocalyptic ideologies is the perspectivism, the subtle and majestic Quixotism, of Cervantes.
My recent reading has included two books that, along with my recently completed translation of María Rosa Lojo’s novel Todos éramos hijos (All of Us Were Children), could contribute a great deal to the discussion of what the United States under an authoritarian leader like Donald Trump might look like. Certainly it would have a different face and a divergent reality from those of Argentina’s “dirty war” and Franco’s post-Civil War Spain. Yet, as the Bible tells us, in a sense there is nothing new under the sun; so any valid comparison could be, for any of us, words to the wise.
In my search for an English-language publisher for María Rosa’s novel—about Argentina in the first half of the 1970s, through the eyes of a group of young adults on the brink of an uncertain future—I have come on these two recent translations from the Canadian press Biblioasis: The End of the Story, by Liliana Heker, translated by Andrea G. Labinger; and Black Bread, by Emili Teixidor, translated from the Catalán by Peter Bush.
The End of the Story is a complex and disorienting book, as must have been the experience of being alive in Buenos Aires at the time, while some beloved other or others have been “disappeared” without a trace; but, bit by bit, the pieces of the life of the young revolutionary woman whose life the narrator is struggling to evoke are revealed more clearly. Though to say that, in the end, the novel achieves a perfect clarity would be to ignore the unknowable, the unanswerable, within the narrative itself and in the existential questions that are left provocatively hanging.
But if what we seek is the illusion of unambiguous, absolute certitude within a world of competing absolutes, we can only end up with something resembling (or approaching) the torturer’s logic in Heker’s novel, here compressed from a longer tirade (warning: this passage does include a lightning bolt of upsetting images, though with no gruesome elaboration of them):
“There’s only one truth. What happens is that some people don’t even realize that they’re wrong. We have to wipe them out anyway; we have to wipe out all the garbage that piled up in Argentina as soon as possible, so it’ll go back to what it was. It’s like a serious illness: you have to operate, with or without anesthesia, in order to save the organism. I’m not about to put up with disrespect from some Commie traitor to the Fatherland. But I don’t do it for pleasure; I do it out of duty. I tell myself, this is a mission you have to fulfill, Sharkey, this vagina, these nipples, are your target; you have to rip these nails off because if you don’t, the Fatherland will fall into foreign hands. Those are the real enemies, because those people think they own the truth. You’ve got to eliminate them without being disgusted. And without hatred. This isn’t pleasant work. Necessary, yes, but not pleasant” (pp. 122-123).
I will leave the reader to contemplate the speaker’s unintended ironies and faulty reasoning. True logic, in any case, as Heker writes, is not “applicable in times of official lunacy” (p. 70); in this official absence of reason we come up with formulations like this: “[The poem] talks about torture. Spells it right out: t-o-r-t-u-r-e. It’s forbidden to write about, understand. It’s immoral. It’s subversive” (p. 103)—but of course, by inference, it is neither immoral nor subversive to inflict it on our perceived enemy; let’s not get carried away with ourselves, fellow bleeding-hearts!
But perhaps most chilling, if we cannot conceive of this happening to ourselves, good and law-abiding citizens such as we are, is what happens to the ordinary man or woman who, looking out of a café window (for instance) and then rushing out to greet someone in the street—without paying, though with notebook and purse still on the table—might lead so perilously close to the torture chamber (as a random traffic stop, to a law-abiding and courteous black man in the U.S., is many times more likely to end in death than for a white man in a comparable position):
“This is what’s changed, she thinks as she leaves: death lying in wait, floating over the minutiae of daily life. To unravel the meaning of these trivial, apparently unhistorical, actions, which nonetheless intercept History, diverting its course in unforeseeable ways” (p. 57); and, reflecting further on the same instance: “Civilized people. And yet one suspicious move on her part would be enough to make the man point her out with his finger” (p. 65).
Black Bread, which has been made into an Oscar-nominated film from Spain, reminded me of another film, Pan’s Labyrinth, which I have particularly loved. The common bond is the emotionally sustaining bread of imagination and of lush fantasy—in the former, the source is the grandmother’s store of fancy and lore, which must be suppressed if our boy protagonist is to make it in the cruel adult world he is to be educated for; and likewise, in the latter, the fairy tales that the mother (widow of one of the Civil War’s losers; now consigned to a loveless marriage with a cruel, misogynistic military victor) no longer wants the girl protagonist to read or to believe in, if she too is going to survive the new enforced reality.
In Teixidor’s novel, his more traditional narrative with its peaceful pastoral setting—not exempt, nonetheless, from the violent inroads made by the victors in their campaign to purify the land of any trace of liberal ideas—is an easier read than Heker’s; which is not to say that its secrets are any more easily obtained.
It is narrated, presumably, by an adult Andreu looking back on the effective end of that childhood, though entirely through the more ingenuous eyes of that younger Andreu’s at the time. This is a perceptive boy in his evolving notions of the adult world he cannot avoid entering, though continually perplexed by its secrets that he and his younger cousin, Núria (or Cry-Baby) must unlock on their own.
The hardest chapters for me to read, the hardest to emotionally bear up under, involve the boy’s journey with his mother to visit his ailing father in one of Franco’s prisons—a hellhole if ever there was one; and a testament to human cruelty and indifference to the sufferings of real or perceived enemies and their families—and, then, after the father’s death, the mother’s emotional breakdown and confrontation with the local leaders who could hardly be bothered to let her bury her husband.
Still, I would not give up the experience of having read them; for, of what worth is the literature of suffering that does not, in some degree, break our hearts?
This is not just a sad book, in any case, but a sad book laced with moments of intense joy and grace, of life and of beauty that are no less overwhelming than the horror of human violence and malice. In Andreu’s grandmother’s storytelling, for instance, hid a power “that could transform cruelty into happiness, laughter and hope. Death, into life” (p. 233)—which is undoubtedly true of the folk tales or fairytales recorded by the Brothers Grimm, or the literary folk- (or fairy-) tales of Hans Christian Andersen; and all the more so in their unsanitized originals, from which (perhaps unwisely) we try to shield our children.
As for the vitality of that fantasy world as developed so richly in Black Bread (likewise in Pan’s Labyrinth), it is not nor has it ever been enough for the world’s realists to pronounce that realm superfluous to the merely visible one we inhabit. For we must account for the world of beauty, of mystery, of imagination that sustains us and makes our spirits soar—and is the source of the slow advances and refinements that do take place, from time to time, even in the harsh yet necessary political realm.
Andreu suggests something of this, I think, in the following passage, which proceeds from a critique of the Church—religious leaders in league with the military occupiers—and the absence, within that victorious society that the Church implicitly blessed, of any thread of mercy or forgiveness:
[The adults] all knew mercy and forgiveness didn’t exist in this world and that everything priests said was like Grandmother’s fireside fairytales, pleasant, cheery chatter to pass the time, entertainment for our leisure time, but not totally nonexistent.
In fact, that was the source of the intangible beauty and virtue of Grandmother’s imaginary characters that were as evanescent as a dream (p. 227).
The personal and collective tragedy, within the thematic structure of Teixidor’s novel, is in the child’s anguished understanding that, in order to survive in the world of these conquerors, he will have to become a little more like them and live strictly in that real world, a world destructive of any true spiritual dimension that might come to us through worlds of imagination and tolerance; or, by a logical extension, through the risk involved in loving and confiding in any one person or relationship. Because, as Grandma Mercè puts it in one of her darker moments:
“War rots everything, that’s what Father Tafalla says, and he’s right. Blasted war spares nothing, saves nobody, simply kills…and…everbody scattered to the four corners…brother and sisters, sons and daughters, grandchildren…flung all over the shop, like thunder, lightning and hail that leaves not one plant standing” (p. 321).
A parallel tragedy, however, in pursuit of those spiritual intangibles that offer us sustenance, is a descent into the false certitudes of absolutist doctrines both political and religious, which are a frightful aspect of the false security of authoritarian regimes like those of the generals in Argentina and Franco’s decades-long Spanish reign.
We must become more comfortable as a people, it seems to me, with the inescapable facts of uncertainty, of difference, of ambiguity, of perpetual change that inevitably exists in any world we might inhabit. For, that golden age we hearken back to while latching onto slogans like “Make America Great Again” was never as golden as nostalgia paints it for us. And certainly not for the invisible sufferings of all those whom the relatively comfortable have almost always failed to take into account.
It is the search for absolute certitude and security, in other words, not the imaginative embrace of mystery and ambiguity or liberality, that leads almost inevitably to the destruction of all we hold dear.
And the politics or religion that cannot allow contraries (people or ideas) to live in harmony and tolerance—whether it be radical Islam or radical Christianity; the most extreme expressions of reactionary American Republicanism or of the radical Liberal or Progressive, or Democrat, or Socialist—is a politics or a religion necessarily at odds with an ever-evolving, flexible Constitution that seeks to reconcile the secular with the religious so that no individual or group be subject to “the tyranny of the majority”—a phrase variously attributed to Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and John Adams; and made popular by Alexis de Toqueville in Democracy in America.
Lord Acton offers this clarifying definition of the term: “The one pervading evil of democracy is the tyranny of the majority, or rather, of that party, not always the majority, that succeeds by force or fraud, in carrying elections.”
The problem, then, a thorough discussion of which I must put aside for another occasion, is how to discern among competing claims on the status of most-tyrannized. And that is just one of the prickly subjects of contention that will have to be surmounted, if we are ever to truly be a nation of engaged citizens whose members can take part in civil discourse with each other.
Who can participate, in other words, in an ever-ongoing national reconciliation of contraries.