What good is literature? (II)

Julio Cortázar

Image by Nney via Flickr

¿Para qué sirve la literatura? (II) (Spanish)

À quoi sert la littérature ? (French)

What good is literature? (II)

Every so often a politician, a bureaucrat or a smart investor decides to strangulate the humanities with a cut in education, some culture ministry or simply downloading the full force of the market over the busy factories of prefabricated sensitivities.

Much more sincere are the gravediggers who look at our eyes, and with bitterness or simple resentment, throw in our faces their convictions as if they were a single question: What good is literature?

Some wield this kind of philosophical question, not as an analytical instrument but as a mechanical shovel, to slowly widen a tomb full of living corpses.

The gravediggers are old acquaintances. They live or pretend to live, but they are always clinging to the throne of time. Up or down there they go repeating with voices of the dead utilitarian superstitions about needs and progress.

To respond about the uselessness of literature depends on what you comprehend to be useful and not on the literature itself. How useful is the epitaph, the tombstone carved, a reconciliation, sex with love, farewell, tears, laughter, coffee? How useful is football, television programs, photographs that are traded on social networks, racing horses, whiskey, diamonds, thirty pieces of Judas and the repentance?

There are very few who seriously wonder what good is football or the greed of Madoff. There are but a few people (or have not had enough time) that question or wonder, “What good is literature?” Soccer and football are at best, naïve. They have frequently been accomplices of puppeteers and gravediggers.

Literature, if it has not been an accomplice of puppeteers, has just been literature. Its critics do not refer to the respectable business of bestsellers or of prefabricated emotions. No one has ever asked so insistently, “what good is good business?” Critics of literature, deep down, are not concerned with this type of literature. They are concerned with something else. They worry about literature.

The best Olympic athletes have shown us how much the human body may withstand. Formula One racers as well, although borrowing some tricks. The same as the astronauts who put their first steps on the moon, the shovel that builds also destroys.

The same way, the great writers throughout history have shown how far and deep the human experience, (what really matters, what really exist) the vertigo of the highest and deepest ideas and emotions, can go.

For gravediggers only the shovel is useful. For the living dead too.

For others who have not forgotten their status as human beings who dare to go beyond the narrow confines of his own primitive individual experience, for condemned who roam the mass graves but have regained the passion and dignity of human beings, for them it is literature. ∎

Anuncio publicitario

Eduardo Galeano: The Open Eyes of Latin America

Cover of "Mirrors: Stories of Almost Ever...

Cover of Mirrors: Stories of Almost Everyone


Eduardo Galeano:

The Open Eyes of Latin America

On Mirrors, Stories of Almost Everyone

Jorge Majfud

Lincoln University

There are very few cases of writers who maintain total indifference toward the ethics of their work. There are not so few who have understood that in the practice of literature it is possible to separate ethics from aesthetics. Jorge Luis Borges, not without mastery, practiced a kind of politics of aesthetic neutrality and was perhaps convinced this was possible. Thus, the universalism of Borges’ precocious postmodernism was nothing more than the very eurocentrism of the Modern Age nuanced with the exoticism proper to an empire that, much like the British empire, held closely to the old decadent nostalgia for the mysteries of a colonized India and for Arabian nights removed from the dangers of history. It was not recognition of diversity—of equal freedom—but confirmation of the superiority of the European canon adorned with the souvenirs and booty of war.

Perhaps there was a time in which truth, ethics and aesthetics were one and the same. Perhaps those were the times of myth. This also has been characteristic of what we call committed literature. Not a literature made for politics but an integral literature, where the text and the author, ethics and aesthetics, go together; where literature and metaliterarure are the same thing. The marketing thought of postmodernity has been different, strategically fragmented without possible connections. Legitimated by this cultural fashion, critics of the establishment dedicated themselves to rejecting any political, ethical or epistemological value for a literary text. For this kind of superstition, the author, the author’s context, the author’s prejudices and the prejudices of the readers remained outside the pure text, distilled from all human contamination. But, what would remain of a text is we took away from it all of its metaliterary qualities? Why must marble, velvet or sex repeated until void of meaning be more literary than eroticism, a social drama or the struggle for historical truth? Rodolfo Walsh said that a typewriter could be a fan or a pistol. Has this fragmentation and later distillation not been a critical strategy for turning writing into an innocent game, into more of a tranquilizer than an instrument of inquiry against the musculature of power?

In his new book, Eduardo Galeano responds to these questions with unmistakable style—Borges would recognize: with kind contempt—without concerning himself with them. Like his previous books, since Days and Nights of Love and War (1978), Mirrors is organized with the postmodern fragmentation of the brief capsule narrative. Nevertheless the entire book, like the rest of his work, evinces an unbreakable unity. His aesthetics and his ethical convictions as well. Even in the midst of the most violent ideological storms that shook recent history, this ship has not broken up.

Mirrors expands to other continents from the geographical area of Latin America that had characterized for decades Eduardo Galeano’s main interest. His narrative technique is the same as in the trilogy Memory of Fire (1982-1986): with an impersonal narrator who fulfills the purpose of approaching the anonymous and plural voice of “the others” and avoiding personal anecdote, with a thematic order at times and almost always with a chronological order, the book begins with the cosmogonic myths and culminates in our times. Each brief text is an ethical reflection, almost always revealing a painful reality and with the invaluable consolation of a beautiful narration. Perhaps the principle of Greek tragedy is none other than this: lesson and commotion, hope and resignation or the greater lesson of failure. As in his previous books, the paradigm of the committed Latin American writer, and above all the paradigm of Eduardo Galeano, seems to be reconstructed once again: history can progress, but that ethical-aesthetical progress has mythical origin for its utopian destination and memory and awareness of oppression for its instruments. Progress consists of regeneration, of the recreation of humanity in the same manner as the wisest, most just and most vulnerable of the Amerindian gods, the man-god Quetzalcóatl, would have done it.

If we were to remove the ethical code with which each text is read, Mirrors would shatter into brilliant fragments; but it would reflect nothing. If we were to remove the aesthetic mastery with which this book was written it would cease to be memorable. Like myths, like the mythical thought redeemed by the author, there is no way of separating one part from the whole without altering the sacred order of the cosmos. Each part is not only an alienated fragment but a tiny object that has been unearthed by a principled archeologist. The tiny object is valuable in its own right, but much is more valuable due to the other fragments that have been organized around it, and these latter become even more valuable due to those fragments that have been lost and that are now revealed in the empty spaces that have been formed, revealing an urn, an entire civilization buried by wind and barbarism.

The first law of the narrator, to not be boring, is respected. The first law of the committed intellectual as well: never does entertainment become a narcotic instead of a lucid aesthetic pleasure.

Mirrors has been published this year simultaneously in Spain, Mexico, and Argentina by Siglo XXI, and in Uruguay by Ediciones del Chanchito. The latter continues an already classic collection of black cover books which has reached number 15, represented meaningfully with the Spanish letter ñ. The texts are accompanied with illustrations in the manner of little vignettes that recall the careful art of book publishing in the Renaissance, in addition to the author’s drawings as a young man. Even though his conception of the world leads him to think structurally, it is difficult to imagine Eduardo Galeano skipping over any detail. Like a good jeweler of the word who polishes in search of every one of his different reflections, he is equally careful in the publication of his books as works of art. The English edition, Mirrors, Stories of Almost Everyone, translated by Mark Fried, will be published by Nation Books.

With each new contribution, this icon of Latin American literature confirms for us that additional formal prizes, like the Cervantes Prize, should not be long in coming.

Translated by Bruce Campbell

¿Para qué sirve la literatura?

Jorge Majfud’s books at Amazon>>

À quoi sert la littérature ? (French)

What good is literature, anyway? (English)

¿Para qué sirve la literatura? (II)

¿Para qué sirve la literatura?

Estoy seguro que muchas veces habrán escuchado esa demoledora inquisición “¿Bueno, y para qué sirve la literatura?”, casi siempre en boca de algún pragmático hombre de negocios; o, peor, de algún Goering de turno, de esos semidioses que siempre esperan agazapados en los rincones de la historia, para en los momentos de mayor debilidad salvar a la patria y a la humanidad quemando libros y enseñando a ser hombres a los hombres. Y si uno es escritor, palo, ya que nada peor para una persona con complejos de inferioridad que la presencia cercana de alguien que escribe. Porque si bien es cierto que nuestro financial time ha hecho de la mayor parte de la literatura una competencia odiosa con la industria del divertimento, todavía queda en el inconsciente colectivo la idea de que un escritor es un subversivo, un aprendiz de brujo que anda por aquí y por allá metiendo el dedo en la llaga, diciendo inconveniencias, molestando como un niño travieso a la hora de la siesta. Y si algún valor tiene, de hecho lo es. ¿No ha sido ésa, acaso, la misión más profunda de toda la literatura de los últimos quinientos años? Por no remontarme a los antiguos griegos, ya a esta altura inalcanzables por un espíritu humano que, como un perro, finalmente se ha cansado de correr detrás del auto de su amo y ahora se deja arrastrar por la soga que lo une por el pescuezo.

Sin embargo, la literatura aún está ahí; molestando desde el arranque, ya que para decir sus verdades le basta con un lápiz y un papel. Su mayor valor seguirá siendo el mismo: el de no resignarse a la complacencia del pueblo ni a la tentación de la barbarie. Para todo eso están la política y la televisión. Por lo tanto, sí, podríamos decir que la literatura sirve para muchas cosas. Pero como sabemos que a nuestros inquisidores de turno los preocupa especialmente las utilidades y los beneficios, deberíamos recordarles que difícilmente un espíritu estrecho albergue una gran inteligencia. Una gran inteligencia en un espíritu estrecho tarde o temprano termina ahogándose. O se vuelve rencorosa y perversa. Pero, claro, una gran inteligencia, perversa y rencorosa, difícilmente pueda comprender esto. Mucho menos, entonces, cuando ni siquiera se trata de una gran inteligencia.

© Jorge Majfud


Diciembre de 2000

Litterae (Chile)


What good is literature, anyway?

I am sure that you have heard many times this loaded query: «Well, what good is literature, anyway?» almost always from a pragmatic businessman or, at worst, from a Goering of the day, one of those pseudo-demigods that are always hunched down in a corner of history, waiting for the worst moments of weakness in order to «save» the country and humankind by burning books and teaching men how to be «real» men. And, if one is a freethinking writer during such times, one gets a beating, because nothing is worse for a domineering man with an inferiority complex than being close to somebody who writes. Because if it is true that our financial times have turned most literature into a hateful contest with the leisure industry, the collective unconscious still retains the idea that a writer is an apprentice sorcerer going around touching sore spots, saying inconvenient truths, being a naughty child at naptime. And if his/her work has some value, in fact he/she is all that. Perhaps the deeper mission of literature during the last five centuries has been precisely those things. Not to mention the ancient Greeks, now unreachable for a contemporary human spirit that, as a running dog, has finally gotten exhausted and simply hangs by its neck behind its owner’s moving car.

However, literature is still there; being troublesome from the beginning, because to say its own truths it only needs a modest pen and a piece of paper. Its greatest value will continue to be the same: not to resign itself to the complacency of the people nor to the temptation of barbarism. Politics and television are for that.

Then, yes, we can say literature is good for many things. But, because we know that our inquisitors of the day are most interested in profits and benefits, we should remind them that a narrow spirit can hardly shelter a great intelligence. A great intelligence trapped within a narrow spirit sooner or later chokes. Or it becomes spiteful and vicious. But, of course, a great intelligence, spiteful and vicious, can hardly understand this. Much less, then, when it is not even a great intelligence.

© Jorge Majfud