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Sunday
Sep162012

Borges, "La supersticiosa ética del lector"

An essay ("The superstitious ethics of the reader") by this Argentine man of letters.  You can read the original here.

The destitute condition of our letters to wit, its inability to seduce readers has engendered a superstition regarding style, a distracted interpretation by the partially attentive.  What those afflicted with this superstition understand by style is not a page's efficacy or inefficacy, but the ostensible habits of the writer: his similes, his sound, the occurrences of his punctuation and his syntax.  They remain indifferent, however, to his convictions or his emotion; instead they seek out tecniquerías (a word coined by Unamuno), "games of technique," which will tell them whether or not what is written has the right to please them.  They have heard that adjectivizations should not be trivial and will think a page poorly written if it does not contain surprises amidst the junctures of adjectives and nouns, even if its final aim has been realized.  They have also heard that concision is a virtue and deem concise those who restrict themselves to ten short sentences, and not those who write one long one.  (Normative examples of this charlatanism of brevity, of this sententious frenzy, can be found in the diction of the celebrated Danish statesman Polonius of Hamlet, and of the real-life Polonius, Baltasar Gracián.)  They have heard that the close repetition of a few syllables is cacophonous and will pretend that such a phenomenon causes them pain when they read prose, although its appearance in verse gives them a special pleasure, which, I think, is just as feigned.  That is to say, they do not see the efficacy of the mechanism, only the layout of its parts.  They subordinate emotion to ethics rather, to an undisputed etiquette.  This inhibition has been so generalized that no more readers, in the ingenuous sense of the word, will remain, only potential critics.

So widespread is this superstition that no one would dare admit an absence of style in any works he comes across, especially if these works are alleged 'classics.'  There is no good book without stylistic attribution, which no one can do without apart from, of course, the writer.  Let us take as our example Don Quixote.  Criticism, Spanish criticism, prior to the proven excellence of this novel, had not wanted to consider that its greatest (and, perhaps, its irrecusably single) value was psychological, and attributed to it gifts of style which would strike many as mysterious.  In reality, it is sufficient to review a few paragraphs of Don Quixote to sense that Cervantes was not a stylist (at least not in the present acoustic and decorative meaning of the word), and that the destinies of Quixote and Sancho interested him far too much to allow himself to be distracted by his own voice.  Baltasar Gracián's Agudeza y arte de ingenio so laudatory of other prose narratives such as Guzmán de Alfarache  – decides not to remember Don Quixote.  In jest Quevedo versifies his death and forgets about him.  One might object that these two examples are negative;  Leopoldo Lugones, in our time, presented this explicit opinion:  "Style is the weakness of Cervantes, and the ravages caused by his influence have been very serious.  A paucity of color, an uncertainty of structure, gasping paragraphs that never come to an end, devolving into interminable convolutions; repetitions, a lack of proportion, all this was the legacy of those who, not seeing the supreme realization of an immortal work in anything but its form, remained gnawing the helmet whose bumps concealed strength and taste" (El imperio jesuítico, page 59).  Our Groussac also commented: "If things must be described just as they are, we will have to admit that a good half of the work is composed in too lazy and slovenly a form, which very much justifies the 'humble language' that Cervantes's rivals have imputed to him.  And by this I am neither merely nor mainly referring to the verbal improprieties, the intolerable repetitions or plays on words, or the snippets of weighty grandiloquence that overwhelm us, but to the generally unconscious contexture of this afternoon prose" (Crítica literaria, page 41).  Afternoon prose, chatty and not recited prose, this is the prose of Cervantes and he needs no other.  I imagine that this same observation would be justified in the case of Dostoevsky or Montaigne or Samuel Butler.

This conceit of style is hollowed out into an even more pathetic conceit, that of perfection.  There has never been a metrical writer, even with a chance as close to zero as possible, who has not carved out (the verb ought to be part of his conversation) his perfect sonnet, his miniscule moment which contains his possible immortality, and which the novelties and annihilations of time will have to respect.  This is generally a sonnet without fluff, but the whole thing is fluff: that is to say, a residue, a futility.  This fallacy of persistence (Sir Thomas Browne: Urn Burial) was formulated and recommended by Flaubert in the following phrase: "Correction (in the highest sense of the word) creates with thought what the waters of the Styx created with the body of Achilles: it makes it invulnerable and indestructible" (Correspondance, II, page 199).  The judgment is categorical, and yet I have never had any experience that might confirm it.  (I am doing without the tonic virtues of the Styx; this infernal reminiscence is not an argument, it is an emphasis.)  The page of perfection, the page on which no word could be altered without any damage done, this is the most precarious of all pages.  Changes in the language erase additional senses and nuances; the "perfect" page is the one consisting of those subtle elements that wears out with great ease.  Inversely, the page that contains the vocation of immortality may traverse the fire of its mistakes, of its approximate versions, of its distracted readings, of its incomprehensions, without losing its soul in this crucible.  No line fabricated by Góngora can vary without impunity (as confirmed by those who restore his texts); but Don Quixote has won countless posthumous battles against its translators and survives in the most careless of versions.  Heine, who never heard the work in Spanish, was able to celebrate it endlessly.  More alive is the German or Scandinavian or Hindustani specter of Don Quixote than the anxious verbal artifices of the stylist.   

I did not intend for the morality of this verification to be understood as one of desperation or nihilism.  I do not wish to foment negligence nor do I believe in the mystic virtue of the clumsy sentence or the vulgar epithet.  I admit that the voluntary emission of these two or three minor pleasures the ocular distractions of the metaphor, the auditory distractions of the rhythm, and the unexpected distractions of the interjection or hyperbole  tends to prove to us that the passion of the subject in question is commanding the writer, nothing more.  The asperity of a sentence is as indifferent to genuine literature its softness.  Prosodic economy is no less foreign in art than are calligraphy, orthography, or punctuation: the certainty that the judicial origins of rhetoric and the musical origins of song always remained hidden from us.  The preferred equivocation of the literature of today is emphasis.  Definitive words, words which postulate the wisdoms of a fortune-teller or an angel, or resolutions of a greater than human assuredness only, never, always, all, perfection, completed – comprise the habitual trade of every writer.  They do not think that saying one thing too many times is as unskillful as not saying it at all, and that a careless generalization and intensification is a poverty, which is how it is perceived by the reader.  Their imprudences cause a depreciation in the language.  This is what occurs in French, whose phrase je suis navré tends to mean I won't go have a cup of tea with you, and whose verb of love, aimer, has been reduced to the meaning of like.  This hyperbolic tendency of French is the same in the written language: take, for example, Paul Valéry, hero of lucidity who organized and translated some forgettable and forgotten lines of Lafontaine, then declared them (in an argument with someone): ces plus beaux vers du monde (Variété, 84).

Now I wish to remember the future and not the past.  Reading is already done in silence, a happy indication.  There is already a silent reader of verse.  There is a tireless journey to be made between this stealthy quality and purely ideographic writing the direct communication of experiences, not of sounds – but it is always less distant than the future.  I re-read these negations and think: I do not know whether music knows how to despair over music, or marble over marble, but literature is an art which knows how to prophesize the time in which it might have fallen silent, how to attack its own virtue, and how to fall in love with its own dissolution and court its own end.

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