To begin ...

As the twentieth century fades out
the nineteenth begins
it is as if nothing happened
though those who lived it thought
that everything was happening
enough to name a world for & a time
to hold it in your hand
unlimited.......the last delusion
like the perfect mask of death

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

César Vallejo: from Against Professional Secrets (Book of Thoughts)

Translation from Spanish by Joseph Mulligan

The following is excerpted from C. Vallejo, Against Professional Secrets, ISBN: 9781931824422, Pages: 100, Price: $14.95, available from Roof Books and Small Press Distribution]


An animal is led or is pushed. Man is accompanied in parallel.


There exist questions without answers, which fill the spirit of science and common sense with uneasiness. There exist answers without questions, which are the spirit of art and the dialectic consciousness of things.


Facing the stones of Darwinian risk that compose the Tuileries palace, Potstam, Peterhof, Quirinal, the White House and Buckingham, I suffer the pain of a megatherium, who meditated standing upright, the hind legs on the head of Hegel and the front legs on the head of Marx.


In reality, the sky isn’t far from or near the land. In reality, death isn’t far from or close to life. We are always before the river of Heraclitus.


There are people who are interested in Rome, Athens, Florence, Toledo and other ancient cities, not because of their past––static and immobile––but because of their present––lively and dynamic. For these people, the world of El Greco, the green and yellow robes of his apostles, his house, his kitchen, his crockery, are not very interesting. What do they care about the cathedral of Toledo, with its five doors, its seven centuries, its refreshing cloisters, its silver choir and its enchanting Mozarab chapel? What do they care about the Inn of Blood, where Cervantes was to write The Illustrious Kitchen Maid...? What do they care about the Palace of Carlos V, all of its stone and its distinguished coffered ceiling? The celebrated Castle of San Servando on the other side of the ravine might as well disappear in broad daylight. The tombs of the heroes and cardinals of the cathedral might as well disappear. The Munitions Factory in Toledo––what do they care!? The Tránsito Mosque, constructed in the XIV century by the Jew Samuel Levi––what do they care!? These passersby are utterly indifferent to history in a text, in a legend, in a painting, in architecture, in tradition.

While the guide explains the date and political circumstances of its construction on the Bridge of Alcántara, I note that one of the tourists becomes a disengaged schoolboy and stares at an old Toledan, who is just arriving home on the back of his donkey. The old man laboriously gets down, in the middle of his receiving room. “Ah...!” the old man snorts and begins to loudly call to the watchmen on the corner, so that they help him remove the donkey’s saddle. This happens on the street that bears the name Sponge Cake Oven Way or on that slightly rougher one called Don Pedro’s Path to the Chicken Coop.

These are the scenes that interest certain people: the historical present of Toledo; not its past. They want to submerge in the fleeting present, which in the end recasts and crystallizes the essentials of past history. That old man, seated atop a donkey, summarizes in his snort El Greco, the Cathedral, the Palace, the Mosque, the Munitions Factory. It is a living and transitory scene of the moment, synthesizing, like a flower, Toledo’s uproar and defunct deeds.

The same can be said of all the ancient cities, historical ruins and treasures of the world. One does not narrate history, or see it or hear it or touch it. One lives history and feels it live.


Parallels exist neither in the spirit nor in the reality of the universe. It is but an abstract supposition of geometry. There is no room for a parallelism within the single and linear continuity of life. History and nature unfold linearly and, in this single, solitary line, human events and natural phenomena occur, one after another, successively and never simultaneously.

The parallelism of a railroad does not have a greater living reality than that of two lines drawn on a chalkboard. Two trees or two children born at the same instant do not constitute an effective parallelism either. In all these cases, the geometrical illusion does not sustain objective events, but participates in the nature of so many other fictions of the senses or abstractions of intelligence, like when we see, from a train in motion, that the houses are on parade or when, a burning stick is moving in a circle (see Pascal), we believe that we see and affirm an arc of fire, etc.

Life is a succession and not simultaneity. The apparent parallels of a railroad do not develop at once, but one after another. Men do not live together, but they occur one after another. Towns do not live together either, but occur. Plurality is a phenomenon of time and not of space. The number 1 is solitary of place. The number 2 and the subsequent single or compound numbers do not exist as objective reality, but as abstract suppositions of thought.

Life does not play out in various forms at once. But in various successive forms. A planet does not have a destiny different from that of other planets, but the same and unique end that all the others have managed to carry out. A stone meets a destiny identical to that of a mollusk, and it goes before or after a man, but not at the same time as he. If one could depict the evolution of life, it would be represented by a line of beings and things, with one at the end. In abstract terrain, beings and things unfold with an apparent myriad character. But this is not substantive reality. Beneath the illusory simultaneity of things and beings, reality, at the end, is solely a succession in the movement of the universe. The masses are more a parade than a crowd. The asyndeton surging from history is more a line than a point.


The monument to Baudelaire is one of the most beautiful headstones in Paris, an authentic cathedral tombstone. The sculptor took a lapidary block, split it in two and fashioned a compass. Such is the frame of the monument. A compass. An airplane, one of whose wings drags on the ground, due to its great size, just like the symbolic albatross. The other half is raised perpendicularly to the first and presents in its upper half a giant bat with outstretched wings. Above this creature, alive and floating, there is a gargoyle, whose jutting, vigilant and aggressive chin rests and does not rest upon its hands.

Another sculptor might have chiseled the heraldic cat of the bard, so groped by the critics. He, who worked this stone, however, delved deeper and chose the bat, this zoological binomial––between mammal and bird––that ethical image––between Lucifer and angel––who embodies the spirit of Baudelaire so well. And this, because the author of The Flowers of Evil was not diabolical, in the Catholic sense of the word, but diabolical in a lay and simply human sense, a natural coefficient of rebellion and innocence. Rebellion is not possible without innocence. Only children and angels rebel. Malice never rebels. An old man can only become spiteful and grow bitter. Hence, Voltaire. Rebellion is the fruit of an innocent spirit. And the cat carries malice in each of its paws. On the other hand, the bat––that airborne mouse of the mausoleums, that hybrid specimen of the cornices––has a knack for height and the shadows. It is a native of the kingdom of darkness and also a dweller of the cupolas. Due to its dual nature of flight and darkness, it possesses wisdom in shadows and, as in heroic acts, performs the upward fall.


After publishing two major poetry collections, The Black Heralds (1918) & Trilce (1922), as well as the exceptional & under-celebrated book of prose, Scales (1923), César Vallejo headed for Europe, where he would immerse himself in the world of journalism. His three trips to an interwar Soviet Union, his innumerable personal interviews with a broad demographic, his more than two hundred articles (ranging from sports to theater, from archeology to modern marvels, from labor issues to judicial proceedings)—all this is in concert with his eventual socialist turn. Against Professional Secrets, written during his early years in Europe, is the product of Vallejo’s search for an integral poetics. The schools that were then flourishing in Europe & being imported to Latin America, for him, proved problematic in their search for social change by way of forming exclusive oppositional groups, open only to initiates.

Against Professional Secrets is indeed a critique (of what Vallejo saw as a pose in the European schools & as insincerity in Latin American poetry); yet it is also a proposal, & this I think is what makes his curious “book of thoughts” so compelling. Readers, who revere his indigenism in The Black Heralds, gawk at his experimentalism in Trilce, & hear his resounding call for solidarity in Poemas humanos, will find, amid his many well-employed metaphors, the stunning presence of chromophores (i.e. language matter absorbing light at specific frequencies & thereby imparting color onto its surface). It is due to chromophores that certain chameleons have the ability to adopt the appearance of their surroundings.

Vallejo’s writing in Against Professional Secrets is chromophoric in the sense that it adopts the very modalities that it has set out to critique. It creeps unnoticed like a chameleon through the European literature of the late 19th & early 20th centuries, taking on its likeness & surreptitiously proposing that the content of modern poetry should supersede its form. While at first this may seem contradictory, since in Vallejo’s writing there appears to be a certain preoccupation with technique, a close reading will show that, by including himself within the mark of his own critique, his proposal is one of an integral poetics instead of the conventional oppositional polemics.

—Joseph Mulligan

[Joseph Mulligan, poet and translator, was born in Batavia, NY. His translations include Trilce and Scales by César Vallejo, as well as major works by Jorge Eduardo Eielson, Oliverio Girondo and Alejandra Pizarnik. He lives in New York and Lima. He regularly publishes poetry, translations & essays on his blog The Smelting Process.]

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