19 August 2018

The Superstitious Ethics of the Reader

“The Superstitious Ethics of the Reader” (1931) by Jorge Luis Borges, translated by Suzanne Jill Levine, in Selected Non-Fictions, edited by Eliot Weinberger (Penguin Books, 1999)

I am not sure which is the most erudite writer: Borges the storyteller, Borges the poet, or Borges the critic. Perhaps the question is moot when it comes to the literary tradition which Borges helped build: the intellectual tradition, a poetic and metaphysical-philosophical bent, the striving for excellence at every imaginative turn of the pen. With Selected Non-Fictions, with its doors and windows opened wide to inquiring minds, Borges is a critical tradition unto himself. The fount of his critical production derives from all the resources available to a librarian. Borges the reader is the most erudite writer.

The superstition in the essay “The Superstitious Ethics of the Reader” referred to the “superstition about style”. This was a general tendency of readers to look for or characterize a writer’s style (mannerisms) in order to appreciate a literary text. Borges rejected this form of readerly “affectation.” This led him to state that "strictly speaking, there are no more readers left". There are only potential literary critics. He meant this in a most ironical sense.

For our librarian, greatness in a work could exist beyond stylistic flourishes. There could even be an “absence of style” if it comes to that. Don Quixote was sloppy in parts, but it was still great, owing perhaps to its idiosyncratic absence of style. Borges did not consider Cervantes to be a stylist (“in the current acoustical or decorative sense of the word”). Don Q was great not because of its style but because of its other novelistic attributes. A perfect page, our librarian critic suggested, was an “everlasting fallacy” (For this phrase, our critic gave a nudge to Sir Thomas Browne’s Urn Burial, but I did not get the reference.). A perfect page to Borges was not immutable:

On the contrary, the page that becomes immortal can traverse the fire of typographical errors, approximate translations, and inattentive or erroneous readings without losing its soul in the process. One cannot with impunity alter any line fabricated by Góngora (according to those who restore his texts), but Don Quixote wins posthumous battles against his translators and survives each and every careless version. Heine, who never heard it read in Spanish, acclaimed it for eternity. The German, Scandinavian, or Hindu ghost of the Quixote is more alive than the stylist’s anxious verbal artifices.

This passage I quote in full because I just realized Roberto Bolaño plagiarized (borrowed/paraphrased) the idea in an interview where he said: A work like Don Quixote can resist even the worst translator. As a matter of fact, it can resist mutilation, the loss of numerous pages and even a shit storm. Thus, with everything against it – bad translation, incomplete and ruined – any version of Quixote would still have very much to stay to a Chinese or an African reader. And that is literature.

Are they (our librarian and his fanboy) saying that one test of a masterpiece is its resistance to translation? Are Helen Lowe-Porter’s supposedly unfaithful translations of Thomas Mann tomes not a hindrance to the perception of the latter as a great novelist?

* * *

The taste of Borges is not always beyond reproach. He does have his personal preferences, but his magisterial coverage of traditions and his wide reading (the reading of a reader’s reader) makes one pay attention.

He is allergic to all-knowing readers. Readers who get ecstatic about style. The superstitious etiquette of readers is to be drawn to the absolute and superlative. This is one of the most interesting books I’ve ever encountered. This is such a weird novel, such a very strange novel. Such a unique reading experience. The best book of the summer.

Ah, to needlessly elevate a book:

Overstating something is as inept as not saying it at all … [R]eaders sense the impoverishment caused by careless generalizations and amplifications.

I admit I am sometimes guilty of this superstition, this affectation for style, this appeal to a definitive assessment and judgement, this Blurbing Syndrome. One has to recognize the beauty of straightforward and imperfect narratives.

The exhortation of our librarian is simple. Book bloggers have to be, first and foremost, readers. Otherwise they become literary critics.

Posted for Stu and Richard's Spanish and Portuguese Lit Months 2018.

17 August 2018

Jaime Gil de Biedma's ambiguous poetry

"The Persons of the Verb", complete poems translated by Alice M. Sun-Cua and José Mª Fons Guardiola, in Jaime Gil de Biedma in the Philippines: Prose and Poetry / Jaime Gil de Biedma en Filipinas: prosa y poesía (in Spanish and English text) (Vibal Foundation, Inc., 2016)

Presumably an important but neglected Spanish poet of the second half of the past century, Jaime Gil de Biedma (1929-1990) remained largely inaccessible to English. That was until the publication of this collection in the Philippines. The only other book of his that appeared in translation was a selection of his well-known poems in Longing: Selected Poems (City Lights Books, 2001), translated by James Nolan.

I must say at the outset that this volume, a hefty bilingual edition, was a tome at 644 pages, plus 25 prefatory pages, plus 16 pages of photographs in the midsection. It was obvious that the publisher was a big fan. The end product was groaning with supplementary and scholarly materials, including two forewords, a page dedicated to the memory of Carmen Balcells, beautifully printed endpapers/separators for every major section of the book, a 47-page introduction by publisher Gaspar Vibal, an Autobiographical Note to the poems (1982), author’s note to the first (1975) and second (1981) editions of the poems, notes to the poems by Gaspar Vibal again. And these were only up to the end of the poesía part, which consists of three complete poetry collections: Las Personas del Verbo, Moralidades, and Poemas Póstumos.

The prosa part is Retrato del Artista en 1956, translated and annotated by Wystan de la Peña, which was also divided into three sections: Las islas de Circe, Informe sobre la administración general en Filipinas, and De regreso en Ítaca, each section terminating with translator's notes, for a total of 581 endnotes. I just managed to read up to the first section of the artist's "Portrait". The first and third parts were diary entries sandwiching a management report on Tabacalera, a well-known tobacco industry in the Philippines, for which JGB travelled all the way from Spain to oversee in the mid-1950s.

Rounding up the texts was a particularly informative annotated bibliography grouped by genre and theme, a chronology, an index, an about the translators page, and a final page with two longish blurbs. In the paperback edition that I bought from last year’s Manila International Book Fair, there was a front flyleaf containing JGB’s capsule biography, and end flyleaf with more blurbs. For a beautifully bound book, it was disappointing that the texts and the accompanying scholarly materials were not perfectly proofread. Nonetheless, the materials were well researched and certainly offered a welcome surfeit of information on the life and times of a unique, marginalized (non-mainstream) writer.

A reader interested only with a superficial introduction to JGB would surely complain about the extra pages. But one was afforded the option to immerse oneself into the depths and heights of a poet. JGB was apparently a slow writer and this was obvious from the slow cadence of his lines. Sometimes the poems were impervious. They occupied literal space yet seemingly told nothing particularly earth-shaking at first. But in the simplicity of openly declared feelings they sometimes revealed something close to an epiphany. Perhaps the inwardness of the poems was a subterfuge to JGB’s sexual identity and repressed expressions. Yet the political and sexual were interleaved in subtle wording, emanating from “el gran boquete abriéndose hacia dentro del alma”, as signaled in the poem “Ars Poetica”.

The nostalgia for the sun on the roof terraces,
against the dove-colored concrete wall
—nevertheless so vivid—and the sudden cold
that almost startles.

The sweetness, the warmth of the lips by oneself
amid the familiar street
as in a grand salon, where distant multitudes
would have arrived like beloved family.

Above all, the vertigo of time,
the enormous nothingness that opens towards the depths of the soul
while promises that fall in a faint
as if they were froth, float above.

Its is surely the moment to ponder
that simply being alive demands something,
perhaps heroic deeds—or just
some humble common thing

whose earthly skin
is to be handled between the fingers, with a little faith?
Words, for example.
Familiar words, halfheartedly worn-out.

JGB could sound tender and forthright and conversational. But his frustrations were concealed between the lines. He wanted to rebel at being part of the bourgeoisie, and his poems were his attempts (futile, perhaps, but heroic attempts) to inclusivity. With the background of civil war and poverty in Spain and his reckoning with his homosexuality, JGB’s poetry was shaped by a conflation of private and public concerns. The idyllic Pagsanjan Falls—a tourist spot in Luzon Island which unfortunately became infamous for being a sex tourism haven for foreign child molesters and pedophiles in the 80s—as a backdrop of "Days in Pagsanjan" could sometimes evoke a Cavafy-like sensuality.

Like dreams, beyond
the idea of time,
dreams made of dreams I carry you,
days in Pagsanjan.

In the heat, after the denseness,
the river throbs again,
speckled like a reptile.
And in the dark atmosphere

under the flowering trees
—gleaming, humid,
when at night, we bathed—
each other’s bodies.

JGB, who died of AIDS complications in 1990, was an intermittent celebrant of love and romance. His impermeable poems sometimes gave way to open declarations, as in these lines from “Pandemic and Celeste”, which contained an epigraph from Catullus:

To know about love, to learn it,
it is necessary to have been alone,
And it is necessary to have made love
on four hundred nights
with four hundred different bodies. For its mysteries,
as the poet said, are of the soul,
but a body is the book in which these are read.

JGB's “Posthumous Poems”, published when the poet was still very much alive, was a distillation of his idea of moralities closely haunting mortalities. In this final anti-poetic sequence, somewhat in the tradition of Nicanor Parra, self-questioning, anti-self rants embodied the unself-conscious, fullest expression of one’s own devil’s advocate. One poem was called “Against Jaime Gil de Biedma”, another, “After the Death of Jaime Gil de Biedma”. The persona called "Jaime Gil de Biedma" in the poems could safely indulge in self-pity. It was a perfect way to put distance between the self and the Self.

Against Jaime Gil de Biedma

What's the point, I'd like to know, in moving house,
leaving behind a basement darker
than my reputation—and that says a lot—
hanging small white lacy curtains
and taking a maidservant,
renouncing my bohemian days,
if you come later, you bore,
embarrassing boarder, an idiot wearing my suits,
loafer, good for nothing, shithead,
with your clean hands,
eating from my plate and dirtying the house?

The late night bars, the pimps,
the florists, the dead streets at dawn,
and the dimly lit elevators follow you
when you arrive drunk,
as you pause to look
at your ruined face in the mirror,
with eyes still raging
which you don't want to close.
And if I scold you,
you laugh at me, and remind me of the past
and say that I am getting old.

I could remind you that you are no longer charming.
Your casual style and your disdain
become ridiculous
when you are more than thirty years old,
and your enchanting smile
of a day-dreaming boy
—who feels sure to please—is a sad remnant,
a pathetic attempt,
While you look at me with pleading eyes
and cry and promise me
not to do it anymore.

If only you weren't such a whore!
And if I didn't know, so long ago,
that you're strong when I'm weak,
and that you're weak when I rage ...
Of your homecomings I keep a confused impression
of panic, of sadness, of unease,
and of hopelessness
and impatience and resentment
of suffering again once more,
the unforgivable humiliation
of excessive intimacy.

With a heavy heart I'll put you to bed,
like one who goes to hell
to sleep with you.
With each step dying of impotence,
stumbling over furniture
in the dark, we'll stagger our way through the flat,
clumsily embracing, wobbling
from alcohol and repressed sobs.
Oh, vile servitude of loving human beings,
and the vilest
is to be in love with oneself.

"A Body Is a Man's Best Friend" was almost reminiscent of Auden's "Lullaby". While Auden's rhythmic poem was essentially a tribute to a night of tryst, sleeping heads, faithless arms, and human love, one would reinterpret Gil de Biedma's (posthumous) intent considering its inclusion in a cycle of posthumous poems.

A Body is a Man's Best Friend

Time is not yet over,
and tomorrow is as far as a reef
that I can scarcely make out.

                                   You don't feel
how time drips slowly in this room
with the light on, how the cold outside
laves the window panes... How fast
you fell asleep in my bed tonight, little animal,
with the simple nobility of necessity,
little creature, while I watched you.

Well, then, good night.
                                        That quiet country
whose borders are those of your body
makes me feel like dying
while remembering life, or staying up
—tired and excited—waiting for dawn.

Alone with age, while you sleep
like someone who has never read a book,
little tiny creature: to be a human being
—more honest than in my arms—
therefore, a stranger.

If JGB was tucking his own "little" self to sleep, wasn't it a shocker that the self is none other than "The Other"? After all, he wrote in another antipoem, that "I saved myself writing / after the death of Jaime Gil de Biedma".

For Stu and Richard's Spanish and Portuguese Lit Months 2018.

02 April 2018

Čapek's non-human kind

R.U.R. (Robot Unibersal ni Rossum): Isang Dramang Kolektibang may Komikong Prologo at Tatlong Yugto mula sa Tsekong Manunulat na si Karel Čapek [R.U.R. (Rossum's Universal Robots): A Collective Drama With a Comic Prologue and in Three Acts from the Czech Writer Karel Čapek], translated to Filipino by Guelan Varela-Luarca (Central Book Supply Inc., 2016), from the English version by Claudia Novack

The term robot supposedly first appeared in the 1920 Czech drama collective R.U.R. (Rossum's Universal Robots) by Karel Čapek. They were humanoid machines created in a factory by scientists using a formula. The template for robots was humans. In this present age where the rights of "non-human persons", or at least those of animals, were increasingly being recognized, we had to give it to the Czech dramatist for his prescience. The robot inventory of Rossum's Universal Robots (R.U.R.) company warehouse currently held 347,000 units. Harry Domin, the CEO of R.U.R. acknowledged the capacity of these robots to be taught.

DOMIN.   Bueno. Puwede ni'yong sabihin sa kanila'ng kahit na anong ibigin ni'yo. Puwede ni'yo silang basahan ng Bibliya, ng mga logaritmo, kahit ano. Puwede ni'yo pa ngang turuan hinggil sa mga karapatang pantao.

DOMIN.   Well. You could share with them whatever you want. You could read them the Bible, logarithms, anything. You could even teach them about human rights. [1]

Coming from somebody called Domin, that was quite a superior statement. According to Dr. Gall, the R.U.R.'s chief of research and physiological department, robots had to be taught "pain" in order for them to protect themselves from destroying themselves. This was for "industrial reasons" (read: pure capitalist motives). Robots could destroy themselves if they don't know how to feel pain. They could put their hands inside a machine, where their fingers are chopped off, their heads could be broken, even if they don't feel anything. "Kailangan nating ipakilala sa kanila ang kirot; natural na proteksiyon iyon laban sa pagkasira." (We had to teach them the concept of pain; it will be their natural protection against destruction.)

Čapek offered a scenario of the future, a Gedankenexperiment. Humans will rely on robots to do all forms of labor for them. As Domin explained, the human kind would now have the time to do anything they wanted. Poverty would then disappear. True, he said, humans would become unemployed as a consequence, but that was because no job would even need to be performed by any human being at all! The machines would do all the things at their bidding. And as a bonus, human slavery would finally be a thing of the past. Mankind would just be left to pursue its perfection.

Helena Glory, the woman who visited the factory, would have none of it. She believed it was a terrible situation for the robots, and it was a violation of natural law, for even if male and female robots were created, they did not feel anythings for each other. They will never love, will never bear children, will never hold a newborn baby in their likeness in their arms.

But since this was first-rate science fiction, it was only a matter of time before the robots were provoked and awakened, before a labor union of robots was organized. It was only a matter of time for the human spark to flare inside the robots and for them to finally revolt against their masters and creators.

Our Czech writer carried the logic of this dystopia to the end. (And it would not be farfetched to imagine that this play might itself be a product of a robot's thinking ...) The situation and characters, humans and non-humans alike, were vivid. It was a Marxist comedy, a satire on human intellect and ingenuity, a perfect product of neo-liberal capitalist society, a slogan for non-human persons' rights. It was written in 1920, a pioneer of visceral robotic imagination, a defining work, way ahead of any ghosts in the shell, the terminators, pacific rims, blade runners, and ex machinas [2].


1. The play was translated into Filipino from Claudia Novack's English version. Since I don't have a copy of Novack, I back-translated the passages, as well as the paraphrases, above.

2. Spoiler: Here we were introduced to the "Čapek test" (contra Turing test) of determining whether a non-human robot finally exhibits the characteristics of a biological human being. It was a simple biological test, and it involves a robot mimicking the characteristics of living things, reproduction being the clincher criterion. The other human aspects (empathy, tolerance) might be easier to test for robots. I mean, even for humans these aspects were hard to come by. The likelihood of failure was high.

30 March 2018

Tsushima's light and darkness

Territory of Light by Yūko Tsushima, translated by Geraldine Harcourt (Penguin Classics, 2018)

Yūko Tsushima's early novels and stories, at least those that were translated so far, were of a piece. They were variations of a single theme: they constantly featured single mothers and their struggles to raise their daughters alone in modern Japanese society that was still marked by traditional mores. Her latest in translation, Territory of Light, appeared originally in 1978-79, between the publication of Child of Fortune (1978) and Woman Running in the Mountains (1980). It might not be far-fetched to say that each of the first person narrators in these I-novels (Shishōsetsu) could be substituted for each other. They registered the same cold voice, the same stubbornness, and the same calculated rebelliousness.

While the backgrounds of the female characters were the same, the individuated details and poetic images were what made them distinctly whole and apart. The silent voice and quiet devastation lingered in each for a long time. The single mother was thankfully not a saint or martyr, but just a plain human being, what shallow readers would usually detest for being "unlikeable" or "unrelatable". Because they were fallible and often turned down by their own failings, their journeys were all the more interesting. They usually began as a newly separated single mother, challenged by ordinary circumstances, judged by society and their designated moral police or arbiters, and eventually, gradually, gaining and recognizing their self-worth.

Even if I was an incorrigible fool, I wanted to believe that there was still something fundamental in me worthy of my own respect.

With combined humility of character and stinging outbursts of emotion, the wife decided to file for divorce from Fujino, her husband, after he practically abandoned her and their daughter. This decision was rebuffed by her and Fujino's friends and acquaintances. "Nothing good will come of a divorce", one would say to convince her to backtrack from her decision. "Believe me, nothing goes right for a woman of her own", another one would tell her pointedly. And her husband would chastise her, "how are you going to manage with the little one on your own?" "Shadowy figures", who seemingly were conspiring collectively against her, would plague her consciousness. This novel was as much a poetic journey toward an unknown epiphany as a psychological journey (or "transformation", though that word is overused) of the woman from a helpless single mother to an independent individual able to repulse at every turn the forces that compel her not to turn away from her husband and "ruin" the family.


Among her virtues as a novelist, Tsushima's extraordinary display of compassion and empathy was the most haunting. Contemplating the reasons behind a woman's suicide by jumping in front of a train, the narrator of Territory of Light was "gripped by a sense that [she] shouldn't distance [herself] from the person who'd gone under the train as if it were nothing to do with [her]." Her extraordinary sympathy extended from the singular victim to the collective.

What burden of suffering or grief had brought them [the suicides] to this point? How long had they spent on this platform, and what were they looking at? They'd stood here alone, unnoticed. Now there was a whole crowd staring at the cast-off physical body, mangled and bloodied. What pain had driven them to it? I wanted to know, I badly wanted to know.

In several instances, the female protagonist was creating scenarios in her mind where she tried to communicate with characters or imagine a conversation. She would, for example, recall a story in her childhood wherein several children talked about the miraculous survival of a boy who fell from the school's rooftop, who had fortuitously landed on a water trough just about his own size. She would consider the veracity of this story in hindsight, and assume that the story might be a fictionalized account because it was convenient for children to think so.

The children might well have made up that version of events. Maybe one of them saw the accident victim's body, noticed the nearby cistern, thought 'If only he'd landed in there', and in a moment of anger at the child who hadn't fallen where he should, decided to forget he was dead. Reality couldn't be as brutal as that. Perhaps the child who saw returned to his playmates, not giving the body with its shattered skull a backward glance, and reported: 'They say someone fell off the roof, but he fell right into the water and he's fine,' adding, with a laugh, 'Some people do the weirdest things!' Yes, I remember the rumour as always being accompanied by laughter. The children had realized that it was possible to survive a fall from a roof, despite the grownups' best efforts to scare them, and the shared sense of superiority this gave them made them erupt in laughter.

This made-up story would itself be tested by the end of the chapter. In any case, this building of an alternate reality within the reality of the fictional fabric, making up a different version of past events, a kind of fiction within fictionwas a technique that Tsushima was using since Child of Fortune, her first novel, and was exploited in full in her novel Laughing Wolf. In the latter, the children's points of view were the departure point to set off convenient fictions, assumptions, and simulations to stave off the brutality of reality. As the narrator confessed at one point, "it cheered me up to expand the bounds of what I could think of as not impossible."

In a scene of the mother and daughter visiting a tree park on a Sunday, she imagined a playful conversation with another pair of mother and daughter she encountered in the park. The imagined version of an event to suit one's convenience was also akin to the imagined transaction or trade in "The Silent Traders", one of Tsushima's signature stories in The Shooting Gallery. In an almost similar manner and voice, the mother created a fictional version of a "silent trade" in her mind as a substitute to the boredom, insecurity, and fear she felt as a single mother, this time looking for a child who just ran away from her.

Tsushima's approach to the novel was also unique in terms of her handling of imagery. The twelve chapters, which originally came out in monthly installments in a Japanese periodical, were often built around a single image mentioned in the title. Hence, "The Water's Edge" was centered around the flooding of the apartment roof. The narrative unfolded with the restraint and grace of the elements – light, water, wind, sand dunes, trees, birds, fire. And with light as the dominant, illuminating image, the poetry was evident in the sentences. Geraldine Harcourt, the perennial translator of Tsushima's novels and stories, must have been on point and extra cautious in her selection of words here if she can reproduce sentences like, "The early summer leaves were still young; they stirred coolly at the tips of the branches, giving off tiny gleams that flitted like insects", or "The more of those gloomy, cramped apartments I looked at, the further the figure of my husband receded from sight, and while the rooms were invariably dark, I began to sense a gleam in their darkness like that of an animal's eyes. There was something there glaring back at me. Although it scared me, I wanted to approach it."

Harcourt was able to reproduce not only Tsushima's poetic touches but also her characteristic motifs here and in stories elsewhere – shooting galleries, aquariums – including the abiding figure of a mentally handicapped boy who, like a guardian angel, was almost to be expected in every novel and story of Tsushima's. Another fascinating aspect of the stories was the dream sequences which the mother constantly relived as if to assuage her heightened anxiety.

While the element of water was also very pronounced, as it was in Child of Fortune and in "The Watery Realm", from the recent two-story sampler Of Dogs and Walls (2018), it is the titular imagery of light that surfaces now and again in the novel. In the tradition of Sōseki's Meian (Light and Darkness) and Tanizaki's In Praise of Shadows, Tsushima fully embraced the light and bathed her scenes in it.

My daughter ... scampered off towards the pond. I ran after her, out of breath. A weeping willow stood at the point where the side path joined the main one. As it caught the rays of the sinking sun full on, its brightness was dazzling to eyes grown accustomed to the shadows. My daughter was jumping up and down, trying to grab one of the willow's dangling branches. All right, I would wow her by grabbing a whole bunch. Shading my eyes with one hand, I approached my daughter in the light.

While light was everywhere in various forms, the "territory of light" was the single mother's newfound apartment that gave her freedom to live on her own after her husband abandoned her. The wide windows that brought in sunlight to the rooms enabled her to expel the actual and symbolic shadows and darkness lurking in the corners. The novel thus explored how it is to claim just such a territory, such a certain sanctuary. Just how it is to search for and live in a clean, well-lighted place. By the novel's end, we saw the mother, after bathing her life in the light for some time, expelling darkness in the process, ready to face darkness once again as she made arrangements to transfer to a new apartment room that was now placed in a dark, secluded corner.


When Yūko Tsushima passed away on February 2016, she was at the peak of her literary prowess. Unfortunately for readers in English, we have not yet encountered the full range of her achievement and genius. Much remained untranslated in Tsushima's oeuvre. In contrast to the themes of motherhood and pregnancy in the early novels, there was what might be termed a Tsushima late style. To be more precise, this style constituted a geographic and thematic shift in subject in her later works. Already, through the prism of single mothers trying to cope with their situation amid fears and insecurities, the novelist was able to distill the rhythms and textures of a challenged, solitary life. In her recent novels, she turned from the domestic upheavals of a split nuclear family to the varied classical and historical themes in Japanese fiction. Think of wars, famines, and religion. Then combine it with Tsushima's modernist techniques in full throttle, already apparent in her early fiction and exemplified in Laughing Wolf, originally published in 2000 and her only novel translated so far in this mold.

In terms of geographic reach, Tsushima's settings of late veered toward Eastern and Southeast Asia. According to Harcourt, her final novel was partly set in Macau and Batavia during the 17th century. As evident from an interview with her in 2014, posted in Youtube (here) with subtitles by Harcourt, Tsushima was influenced by indigenous people's worldviews, particularly the Ainu's, and ecological issues in the early 1990s, something that have influenced her recent work. What is clear is that the full extent of her innovation in novel writing is yet to be revealed in translation.

I received a review copy of the book from the publisher. I have to commend them for the increasing interest they take on Tsushima's fiction. Child of Fortune, which has gone out of print, will be republished by them later in the year. My gratitude also for the translator, Geraldine Harcourt, for her correspondence in early 2016.

05 February 2018

Footnote to the angel of history

Kung nakakakita tayo sa ating harapan ng isang hanay ng mga pangyayari, nakakakita naman [ang anghel] ng iisang sakuna lamang, ng walang katapusang pag-ipon ng bundok ng durog-durog na labi na inihahagis sa kanyang paanan [1].

How could Walter Benjamin impute so much interpretation to what the angel in Paul Klee’s painting was contemplating? Was that what the caricature-like drawing actually thinking? As it turned out, there was an alternative image for the "melancholically beautiful" image of the angel of history. In a footnote to thesis IX of his Filipino translation of Benjamin's work, Ramon Guillermo mentioned another fascinating image, the one that was also used as cover page of the translation:

“Angelus Novus”: Painting ni Klee (1920) na naging pag-aari ni Benjamin sa isang panahon. Ngunit tila may basehan ang hinuha ni Bolívar Echeverría na ang higit na pinagbatayan ni Benjamin sa tesis IX ay ang guhit na pinamagatang “L’histoire” (Ang Kasaysayan) mula sa Iconologie nina H.F. Gravelot at Ch. N. Cochin (1791) (Echeverría 2005, 25y).


“Angelus Novus”: A painting by Klee (1920) that was for a time owned by Benjamin. But Bolívar Echeverría's [2] conjecture may have a basis: that Benjamin's main inspiration for thesis IX was the drawing called “L’histoire” (History) from Iconologie by H.F. Gravelot and Ch. N. Cochin (1791) (Echeverría 2005, 25y). [my translation]

In "L'histoire", the angel's head was turned to the right. Faced with a specter of destruction around her, the angel of history had chosen not to be a mere spectator. With vigor and passion, she transcribed what was happening in real time. Her right hand held the pen; her left supported the book.

And what of the figure of death in front of her? The old man's back functioned as the writing table, inclined at just the appropriate angle for the angel to write at ease. Like the angel, death was concentrating on his task, very intent to not make the slightest move, full in his support for the angel's role as historian.

And what was she writing about? Presumably something important, so urgent it needed to be put on paper. It had to do with a conflagration, an event that needed an angel to witness and record. We could somehow recognize a man and a woman fleeing a burning city in the background. Where were the rest of city dwellers? It appeared as if they were casualties of some kind of war. The magnitude of destruction was discernible from the smoke covering almost the entire horizon.

Death was assisting our angel historian, but his long scythe was almost leaning toward her left wing. Is writing history akin to a brush with death? Was the angel all too willing to sacrifice her wing just to be able to get a snapshot of war?

And what was that book beneath her? Tucidide on top of a trumpet, muffling the music of the instrument? What was the Athenian historian doing in this apocalyptic setting? Was he providing the framework of history for the angel to pattern her own historical narrative?

And that pointed, pyramid-like structure on the left? It was the one image that corresponded well to the perpetual accumulation of rubble in thesis IX. It was the structure of wreckage that could reach up to heaven, being driven by the storm called Progress (Fortschritt).

The drawing in Gravelot and Cochin's Iconologie certainly was a more illustrative and dramatic representation of the angel of history than Klee's. The reason for Benjamin's indirection, if it was that, may be moot at this point. In any case, the latter's cartoon sketch of an angel, as interpreted by Benjamin, was a helpless historian in the face of storm: his wings were pathetically frozen when struck by the force of the wind. L'histoire, on the other hand, was a more militant angel. She was unfazed by the events unfolding around her, and not even bothered by the sharp scythe of death. Faithful and objective was her transcription of human catastrophe so that the readers would be able to decipher the pattern of folly. Her purpose was clear: to be the conscience and the counsel of history. So that we never repeat it over and over and over again.



[1] From "Tesis IX", in Hinggil sa Konsepto ng Kasaysayan by Walter Benjamin, trans. Ramon Guillermo. Translation: Where we see the appearance of a chain of events, [the angel] sees one single catastrophe, which unceasingly piles rubble on top of rubble and hurls it before his feet. (from Thesis IX, trans. Dennis Redmond)

[2] For his translation of Benjamin’s theses from German to Filipino, Ramon Guillermo also consulted Bolívar Echeverría’s 2008 Spanish translation of the theses, in addition to Benjamin's French translation of his German original. The references at the end of Guillermo's translation also listed "El ángel de la historia y el materialismo histórico”, in Echeverría (ed.), La mirada del Ángel: En torno a las tesis sobre la historia de Walter Benjamin (México: Universidad Autónoma de México).

Image of L'histoire from: Materialist Theology