quarta-feira, 9 de maio de 2012
Signs in Rotation by Octavio Paz
I should not be able to. But still I cannot remain silent either. I shall hazard something that is more than an opinion and less than a certainty: a belief. It is a belief nourished by uncertainty and grounded upon nothing but its negation. In reality I seek that point of insertion of poetry that is also a point of intersection, fixed and vibrant center where contradictions are constantly annulled and reborn. Wellspring-heart.
The question embraces two antagonistic and complementary terms: there is no poetry without society, but poetry has a contradictory way of being social: it simultaneously affirms and denies speech, which is social word; there is no society without poetry, but society can never be realized as poetry, it is never poetic.
A creative community would be that universal society in which the relations between men, far from being an imposition of external necessity, would be like a living fabric, made of each one's fatality in being bound up with the freedom of all. That society would be free because, as its own master, society alone would be able to determine itself; and it would be unified because human activity would not consist, as it does today, in some men's domination over others (or in the revolt against that domination), but would seek the recognition of each person by his equals or, rather, his fellows.
The conversion of society into a community and the poem into practical poetry are not within view. It is just the opposite: each day they seem more remote. The predictions of revolutionary thought have not come true or have been realized in a way that is an affront to the supposed laws of history. It has become a commonplace to insist on the palpable discord between theory and reality. I can only repeat, with no joy whatever, for the sake of the argument, some facts known by all: the absence of revolutions in the countries that Marx called civilized and that today are called industrial or developed; the existence of revolutionary regimes that have abolished private ownership of the means of production without also abolishing the exploitation of man or the differences of class, rank, or function; the almost complete replacement of the classic antagonism between the proletariat and the bourgeoisie, capital and labor, by a dual and ferocious contradiction: the opposition between rich and poor countries and the quarrels between states and groups of states that join together or separate, form alliances or fight one another, stirred by the needs of the moment, by geography and the national interest, independently of their social systems and the philosophies they claim to profess.
A description of the surface of contemporary society would have to include other no less disturbing traits: the aggressive rebirth of racial, religious, and linguistic particularisms along with the docile adoption of forms of thought and conduct elevated to a universal canon by commercial and political propaganda; the raising of the standard of living and the degrading of the standard of life; the sovereignty of the object and the dehumanization of those who produce and use it; the predominance of collectivism and the evaporation of the notion of one's fellow man. The means have become ends: economic policy instead of political economy; sex education and not an understanding of eroticism; the perfection of the communications system and the nullification of those who communicate with one another; the triumph of the sign over the image in the arts and, now, of the thing over the sign. ...
A circular process: plurality is resolved to uniformity without suppressing the discord between nations or the split in consciousnesses; the personal life, exalted by advertising, melts into a life of anonymity; the novelty of each day ends by being repetition and agitation issues in immobility. We go from no place to nowhere. Like the movement in a circle, said Raimundo Lulio, so is the punishment in hell.
Une Saison en Enfer condemns all this. The alchemy of the word is a delirium: vieillerie poétique, hallucination, sophisme de la folie. The poet renounces the word. He does not return to his former belief, Christianity, or to his own people; but before abandoning everything, he proclaims a singular Noël sur la terre: le travail nouveau, la sagesse nouvelle, la fuite des tyrans et des démons, la fin de la superstition. It is the farewell to the old world and the hope of changing it by poetry: Je dois enterrer mon imagination. The chronicle of hell closes with an enigmatic declaration: Il faut être absolument moderne. Whatever may be the interpretation given to this phrase, and there are many, it is evident that here modernity stands in opposition to alchemy of the word.
Rimbaud no longer exalts the word, but the action: point de cantiques. After Une Saison en Enfer one cannot write a poem without overcoming a feeling of shame: is it not a ridiculous act or, what is worse, a kind of deceit? Two paths are still open, the paths tried by Rimbaud: action (industry or revolution) or the writing of that final poem that will also be the end of poetry, its negation and its culmination.
Revolutionary action and the practice of poetry have never seemed so incompatible as in the last thirty years. Nevertheless, something unites them. Born at almost the same time, modern poetic thought and the revolutionary movement meet, after a century and a half of quarrels and ephemeral alliances, before the same landscape:
a space fully packed with objects, but devoid of future. The condemnation of poetry's intent to be incarnated in history also touches he principal protagonist of the modern era: the revolutionary movement. They are the two sides of the same phenomenon. This condemnation, moreover, is an exaltation: it condemns us to ourselves, not to revolution or to poetry. It is very easy now to criticize revolutionary thought, especially its Marxist branch. Its insufficiencies and limitations are obvious. Has anyone observed that they are also our own insufficiencies and limitations? Its errors are those of the boldest and most generous segment of the modern spirit, in its dual direction: as criticism of the social reality and as universal plan for a just society.
Not even the crimes of the Stalinist period or the progressive degeneration of the official Marxism, transformed into bureaucratic Manichaeism, are alien to us: they are an integral part of the same history. A history that encompasses us all and that we have all made together. Although the society envisaged by Marx is far from being a reality of history, Marxism has permeated history so deeply that we all, in one way or another, sometimes without knowing it, are Marxists. Our moral categories and judgments, our idea of the future, our opinions of the present or of justice, peace or war, everything, not excluding our negations of Marxism, is impregnated with Marxism. Marxist thought is now part of our intellectual blood and our moral sensibility.
The contemporary situation has a certain similarity with that of the medieval philosophers who had no tool with which to define the Judeo-Christian God, a creative and personal God, except Aristotle's metaphysical notions about entity and being. (If God, the idea of God, is dead, it died of a philosophical death : Greek philosophy. )
Criticism of Marxism is indispensable, but it is inseparable from that of modern man and must be made with the critical ideas of Marxism itself. To learn what is alive and what is dead in the revolutionary tradition, contemporary society must examine itself. Marx had already said that the only way for Christianity "to make the earlier mythologies understood objectively was by criticizing itself," and that "bourgeois economy did not understand the feudal, ancient, and oriental societies until bourgeois society began to criticize itself." (2) Within the Marxist system, moreover, are the germs of the creative destruction: dialectic and, above all, the force of abstraction,
as Marx called social analysis, today applied to a real and historically determinate subject: twentieth-century society. The notion of the proletariat as a universal agent of history, that of the state as a simple expression of the class in power, that of culture as a "reflection" of the social reality, all this, and many other things besides, will disappear. Not the vision of a communist society. The idea of a universal community in which, by the abolition of classes and of the state, the domination of some by others will cease and the morality of power and punishment will be replaced by that of freedom and personal responsibility—a society in which, with the disappearance of private property, each man will be the proprietor of himself and that "individual property" will be literally common, shared by all thanks to collective production; the idea of a society in which the distinction between work and art is obliterated—that idea is unrenounceable.
It is not only the heritage of Western moral and political thought since the epoch of Greek philosophy, but it is part of our historical nature. To renounce it is to renounce being what modern man has wished to be, to renounce being. Not just a morality or a political philosophy is involved here. Marxism is Western thought's last attempt to reconcile reason and history. The vision of a universal communist society is linked to another: history is the place where reason is incarnated; or more accurately: the movement of history, as it unfolds, is revealed as universal reason. The reality of history often belies this idea; again and again we seek a meaning for the bloody agitation.
We are condemned to seek the reason for the unreason. Indeed, if a new revolutionary thought is to emerge, it will have to absorb two traditions scorned by Marx and his heirs: the libertarian and the poetic traditions, the latter being understood as the experience of otherness; and it is no less certain that this thought, as Marxism was, will be critical and creative; knowledge that embraces society in its concrete reality and in its general movement—and changes it. Active reason.
Doubtless the new poetry will not repeat the experiences of the last fifty years. They are unrepeatable. And still submerged are the poetic worlds waiting to be discovered by an adolescent whose face we shall surely never see. But from the outside it may perhaps not be too reckless to describe some of the circumstances that the new poets face. One is the loss of the world image; another, the appearance of a universal vocabulary composed of active signs: technology; still another, the crisis of meanings.
The growth of the self threatens language in its twofold function: as dialogue and as monologue. The former is grounded on plurality; the latter, on identity. The contradiction of dialogue consists in the fact that each one speaks with himself as he speaks with others; the contradiction of monologue is that it is never I, but another, who listens to what I say to myself. Poetry has always been an attempt to resolve this discord by a conversion of the terms: the I of the dialogue into the you of the monologue.
If the world, as image, disappears, a new reality covers the whole earth. Technology is a reality so powerfully real—visible, palpable, audible, ubiquitous—that the real reality has ceased to be natural or supernatural: industry is our landscape, our heaven and our hell. A Mayan temple, a medieval cathedral, or a baroque palace were something more than monuments: sensible points of space and time, privileged observatories from which man could contemplate the world and the transworld as a totality.
Space is not only populated by machines that tend toward automatism or are already automatons, but it is a field of forces, a knot of energies and relations— something very different from that more or less stable expanse or area of the former cosmologies and philosophies. The time of technology is, on the one hand, a break in the cosmic rhythms of the old civilizations; on the other, the acceleration and, in the end, the cancellation of modern clock time. From both standpoints it is a discontinuous and vertiginous time that eludes representation, if not measurement.
The works of the past were replicas* of the cosmic archetype in the dual sense of the word: copies of the universal model and human response to the world, rhymes or stanzas of the poem that the cosmos says to itself.
The loss of the image of the future, Ortega y Gasset said, implies a mutilation of the past. So it is: everything that once seemed loaded with meaning now appears before our eyes as a series of efforts and creations that are a non-sense. The loss of meaning affects the two halves of the sphere, death and life: death has the sense that our living gives it; and the ultimate meaning of our living is being life in relation to death.
The foregoing description is incomplete and inadequate. But perhaps not so incomplete and inadequate that it will prevent our discerning the possible direction of the coming poetry. First: the dispersion of the world image into disconnected fragments is resolved to uniformity and, thus, to loss of otherness. Technology, for its part, has not given us a new world image and has made it impossible to return to the old mythologies. As long as this time that is our time lasts, there is no past or future, no golden age prior to history or social utopia to come. The poet's time: living for each day; and living it, simultaneously, in two contradictory ways: as if it were endless and as if it would end right now. Thus, the imagination can only endeavor to recuperate and exalt—to discover and project—the concrete life of today. Discovery designates the poetic experience; projection relates to the poem properly so called and will be dealt with later.
Irreducible, elusive, indefinable, unforeseeable, and constantly present in our lives, otherness is confused with religion, poetry, love, and other similar experiences. It makes its appearance with man himself, and therefore it can be said that if man became man by means of work, he had consciousness of himself because of the perception of his radical otherness: being and not being the same as the other animals. From the Lower Paleolithic period to our days that revelation has nourished magic, religion, poetry, art, and also the daily imagining and living of men and women.
Although this is an experience more vast than the religious experience and is prior to it, as I said in another part of this book, rationalist thought condemns it as vigorously as it condemns religion. It may not be useless to repeat that modern religious criticism reduces the divine to the Judeo-Christian notion of one personal and creative God.
Finally, I shall recall something that has been said many times: in extirpating the notion of divinity, rationalism diminishes man. It frees us from God but encloses us in an even more rigorous system. The humbled imagination avenges itself, and atrocious fetishes sprout from God's corpse: in Russia and other countries, the divinization of the leader, the cult of the letter of writings, the deification of the party; among us, the idolatry of the self. To be one's self is to condemn oneself to mutilation because man is perpetual longing to be another. The idolatry of the self leads to the idolatry of property; the real God of Western Christian society is named domination over others. It conceives the world and men as my properties, my things.
The experience of otherness embraces the two extreme notes of a rhythm of separation and union, present in every manifestation of being, from the physical to the biological.
In the dispersion of its fragments. . . The poem—is it not that vibrant space on which a few signs are projected like an ideogram that might be a purveyor of meanings? Space, projection, ideogram: these three words allude to an operation that consists in unfolding a place, a here, that will receive and support a writing: fragments that regroup and seek to form a figure, a nucleus of meanings.
A critical poem: if I am not mistaken, the union of these two contradictory words means: that poem that contains its own negation and that makes of that negation the point of departure for the song, equally distant from affirmation and negation. Poetry, conceived by Mallarmé as language's only possibility of identification with the absolute, of being the absolute, denies itself each time it is realized in a poem (no act, including a pure and hypothetical act: without an author, time or place, will abolish chance)—unless the poem is simultaneously a criticism of that attempt.
Mallarmé opposes two possibilities that seem mutually exclusive (the act and its omission, chance and the absolute) and, without suppressing them, resolves them to a conditional affirmation—an affirmation that is ceaselessly denied and thus is affirmed because it is nourished by its own negation.
In an essay that is one of the densest and most luminous that has been written about this capital text for the poetry of the future, Maurice Blanchot points out that Un Coup de dés contains its own reading. (4) Indeed, the notion of critical poem is bound up with that of a reading, and Mallarmé referred more than once to an ideal writing in which the phrases and words would reflect each other and, in some manner, contemplate or read one another. The reading to which Blanchot alludes is not that of just any reader, or even that of that privileged reader who is the author.
It is an empty space, that horizon below the errant constellation formed of the last verses of Un Coup de dés.
Blake sees, the invisible because for him everything conceals a shape. The universe in its essence is a longing for manifestation, desire that is projected: the imagination has no mission other than to give symbolic and sensible form to energy. Mallarmé nullifies the visible by a procedure that he calls transposition, which consists in making every real object imaginary: the imagination reduces reality to idea.
Although the horizon of Un Coup de dês is not that of technology —its vocabulary is still the vocabulary of symbolism, grounded on the anima mundi and on the universal correspondence—the space it opens is the same as that faced by technology: world without image, reality without world and infinitely real.
its theme is immense and exiguous: the story of the fall, wake, and resurrection of Tim Finnegan, who is nobody else but the English language. Adam (every man), English (every language), and the book itself and its author are a single voice that flows in a circular discourse: the word, end and beginning of all history. The poem devours the poet.
Many of these procedures express the critical tendency adopted in our time by all creative activity. Their interest is twofold: one, of a scientific nature, is that of investigating the essence of the creative process, how and in what way the phrases, rhythms, and images of the poem are formed; the other, poetic, has to do with enlarging the sphere of creation, until recently regarded by our society as an individual domain.
It makes no difference: poetry enters us through our eyes, not through our ears. What is more: we read for ourselves, in silence. Transition from the public act to the private one: the experience becomes solitary. Moreover, printing made the art of calligraphy and that of illustrating and illuminating manuscripts superfluous. Although typography has resources that are not inferior to those of the pen or the pencil, rarely has there been a real fusion between what the poem says and its typographical arrangement on the page. It is true that illustrated editions are abundant; the illustrations almost always overshadow the text, or vice versa. The idea of representing with letters what those same letters mean has frequently tempted poets; the result has been to denaturalize both the design and the writing.
I do not know if lines can speak (sometimes, as I look at certain drawings, I believe they can ) ; on the other hand, I am sure that type cannot draw. Perhaps my opinion would be different if Apollinaire, to cite the last one who tried to draw with letters, had invented real poetic ideograms instead of calligrammes. But the ideogram is not a drawing or a painting: it is a sign and it belongs to a system of signs. Likewise, to call the strokes of some contemporary painters calligraphy is an abusive metaphor of criticism and a confusion. If there is a préfiguration of writing in those paintings it is because all our arts suffer a nostalgia for meaning—although the real language of painting and its meaning may be different. None of these efforts has endangered the realm of the black and white.
By the elimination of music, calligraphy, and illumination, poetry was reduced until it became almost exclusively an art of the intellect. Written word and internal rhythm: mental art. Thus, to the silence and seclusion required for the reading of the poem must be added concentration. The reader strives to understand the meaning of the text, and his attention is more intense than that of the listener or that of the medieval reader, for whom the reading of the manuscript was also contemplation of a symbolic landscape.
The change affects the page and the structure. Journalism, advertising, the cinema, and other means of visual reproduction have transformed writing, which had been almost totally stereotyped by typography. As Mallarmé had foreseen, and above all because of Apollinaire, who understood admirably—even in his aberrations—the direction of the epoch, modern poetry has adopted many of these procedures. The page, which is nothing but the representation of the real space on which the word unfolds, is changed into an animated area, in perpetual communication with the rhythm of the poem. More than containing the writing, one would say that it tends itself to be writing. In turn, the typography aspires to a kind of musical order, not in the sense of written music but of visual correspondence with the movement of the poem and the unions and separations of the image. At the same time, the page evokes the canvas of the painting or the leaf of the sketchbook; and the writing presents itself as a figure that alludes to the rhythm of the poem and that in some manner calls up the object designated by the text.
All writing summons a reader. The writing of the future poem evokes the image of a ceremony: game, recitation, passion (never spectacle). The poem will be re-created collectively. In certain times and places, poetry can be lived by all: the art of the festival awaits its resurrection.
Poetry is born in silence and mumbling, in not being able to say, but it aspires irresistibly to recuperate language as a total reality. The poet makes word of everything he touches, not excluding silence and the blanks in the text. The recent attempts to substitute mere sounds— letters and other noises—for the word are even more unfortunate and less ingenious than calligrams: the poetry is lost without a gain in the music. The poetry of music and the music of poetry are different things. The poem welcomes the cry, the shred of vocable, the gangrened word, murmur, noise, and absurdity: not insignificance. The destruction of meaning was meaningful at the time of the Dadaist rebellion, and it could even be meaningful now if it involved a risk and if it were not just one more concession to the anonymity of commercial advertising. At a time when the sense of words has disappeared, these activities are not unlike those of an army that machine-guns corpses. Today poetry cannot be destruction of meaning but rather search for it. We know nothing of that meaning because the significance is not in what is said now but beyond, on a horizon that is scarcely perceptible. A faceless reality that is there, before us, not like a wall: like an empty space. Who knows what that which is coming will really be like and what image is being formed in a world that, for the first time, has consciousness of being an unstable equilibrium floating in the middle of infinity, an accident among the innumerable possibilities of energy? Writing in a changing space, word in the air or on the page, ceremony: the poem is a cluster of signs that seek a meaning, an ideogram that revolves on itself and around a sun as yet unborn. Significance has ceased to illuminate the world; that is why today we have reality and not image. We revolve around an absence, and all our meanings are nullified in the presence of that absence. In its rotation the poem emits lights that successively gleam and darken. The meaning of that blinking is not the ultimate significance but it is the instantaneous union of the I and the you. Poem: search for the you.
The poet's separation has ended: his word springs from a situation common to all. It is not the word of a community but of a dispersion; and it does not found or establish anything, except its interrogation. Yesterday, perhaps, his mission was to give a purer sense to the words of the tribe; today it is a question about that sense. That question is not a doubt but a quest. And more: it is an act of faith. Not a form but some signs that are projected on an animated space and that possess multiple possible meanings. The final meaning of those signs is not yet known to the poet:
An image by Heraclitus was the starting point of this book. As it draws to a close, the image appears before me: the lyre, which consecrates man and thus gives him a place in the cosmos; the bow, which shoots him beyond himself. All poetic creation is historical; every poem is a longing to deny succession and to establish an enduring realm. If man is transcendence, a going beyond himself, the poem is the purest sign of that continuous transcending himself, of that permanent imagining himself. Man is an image because he transcends himself. Perhaps the historical consciousness and the need to transcend history are nothing but the names we now give to this ancient and perpetual split of being, always separated from oneself, always in search of oneself. Man wants to be one with his creations, to unite with himself and with his fellows : to be the world without ceasing to be himself. Our poetry is consciousness of the separation and attempt to unite that which was separated. In the poem, being and desire for being come to terms for an instant, like the fruit and the lips. Poetry, momentary reconciliation: yesterday, today, tomorrow; here and there; you, I, he, we. All is present: will be presence.
1. In my opinion, the theme of the chronology of Rimbaud's writings has been stated unilaterally. The dates on which the poems were written are one thing, and their place in the work is another. No psychological problem is involved here: there is no doubt that when Rimbaud wrote Une Saison en Enfer, he believed it was his last word, a farewell; but even if it had not been, that text is actually an examination and a final judgment of the poetic experience, as conceived by the so-called Lettre du Voyant and Les Illuminations. If one regards Rimbaud's poems as one work, if they are a whole and not a collection of separate texts, then Une Saison en Enfer follows Les Illuminations, even though some of the latter were written later.
2. General Introduction to a Critique of Political Economy.
* TRANSLATOR'S NOTE: The Spanish word is replicas, which means both replicas and replies.
3. 1 am following in part the interpretation of Mr. Garner Davies (Vers une explication rationelle du "Coup de dès" [Paris, 1953]), who was one of the first to perceive the sense of affirmation of the poem.
4. Le Livre à Venir (Paris, 1959).
In: The Bow and the Lyre. Translated by Ruth L.C.Simms. Austin 2000, University of Texas Press, 1987, pp. 233-62.