Poems in Prose
Under this title some writings by Oscar Wilde were published in ‘The Fortnightly Review’ in July, 1894. I have come across them in a collection of his short stories called ‘Oscar Wilde, Complete Short Fiction’, edited by Penguin Classics with an introduction and notes by Ian Small. Among those texts that make up ‘Poems in Prose’ –that can be seen either as poems or prose-narratives-, the one titled ‘The Artist’ might be an ideal setting for the loud racket caused by the May 1968’s 40th anniversary celebrations during the following days. I took notice of this noise a week ago reading the pages of ‘Babelia’, EL PAÍS literary supplement that appears with the newspaper on Saturdays. But let’s start at the beginning. I would like to introduce you to Wilde’s words first:
One evening there came into his soul the desire to fashion an image of The Pleasure that abideth for a Moment. And he went forth into the world to look for bronze. For he could only think in bronze.
But all the bronze of the whole word had disappeared, nor anywhere in the whole word was there any bronze to be found, save only the bronze of the image of The Sorrow that endureth for Ever.
Now this image he had himself, and with his own hands, fashioned, and had set it on the tomb of the one thing he had loved in life. On the tomb of the dead thing he had most loved had he set this image of his won fashioning, that it might serve as a sign of the love of man that dieth not, and a symbol of the sorrow of man that endureth for ever. And in the whole world there was no other bronze save the bronze of this image.
And he took the image he had fashioned, and set it in a great furnace, and gave it to the fire.
And out of the bronze of the image of The Sorrow that endureth for Ever he fashioned an image of The Pleasure that abiteth for a Moment.
I have read once and again the story and still cannot decide whether his first work ended up being enveloped in flames for there wasn’t really any bronze left in the whole world or for the artist have run out of love and sorrow successively. May 1968 was also a work of great artistic merit and, as it seems, there is no material left in today’s world as the one used by its authors four decades ago. It is even possible that some of them have also run out of the revolutionary feeling they were inspired by. However, it won’t be crazy to think that maybe inspiration is connected with the First Law of Thermodynamics, the one explaining that nothing is lost for everything changes into something else. If that is the case, it might happen that the material used for the so called French May is still part of the poetry and prose written about it 40 years later. You may judge for yourself having a look at the opinions conglomerate that, with a great deal of lyric, ‘Babelia’ presented on Saturday 20th April. I believe that there was a lot of metaphorical sense in the headlines of some articles; have a look at the following verses by Fernando Savater: ‘The Walls Eloquence’ and Juan Goytisolo: ‘Instant [photograph] in sepia tones of an extraordinary month’. And pay attention to the brief outlines of possible stanzas sketched in some sentences as the one written by Catherine François y Santiago Auserón: ‘The Youth did not want an assured future but a fascinating present’, or the one they mentioned that was written in 1984 by Gilles Deleuze y Félix Guattari: ‘No matter how old the event was, it does not agree to be left behind, for it means the opening-up to what is possible’.
However, what most excited me while I was getting further with my reading appeared when I was trying to make up my mind whether the rhyme of that literary supplement was consonant or assonant. At that very moment, Josep Ramoneda and Antonio Muñoz Molina added another possibility that I had not previously considered: dissonant. The former went back over the events topicality, but through different lens: ‘It has not been easy to understand that time passes for everybody and modernity patent does not belong to anybody’. And the latter almost turned his back on the issue: ‘To be honest, so much May 1968 celebration causes me a sheer boredom. I already know everything: the part of the story about the imagination coming to power, about being realistic and ask for what is not possible, about the paving stones and the sand on the beach, etcetera. Other contemporary events are matter of much more importance to me, thought they inspired much less literature’. On his part, Octavi Martí, in his article ‘The echoes of the revolt’ went over the thoughts murmured aloud by another group of voices that also disagree with each other on the importance of that student movement and whether it change the world –for better or for worse- or didn’t change anything. Among those voices there was the present President of France during the last election campaign, who, as Martí mentioned: ‘only missed the opportunity to award retrospective influence to May 1968, and blame it for Nazism, slave trade or the Babel Tower collapse’.
Despite the fact that during the last four decades rivers of ink have been expended on this topic, flood warnings have been issued by publishers after announcing the new books that will come out these days. Good news on the other hand, if we consider that there is no harm in checking our opinion under the current circumstances. It won’t be strange to discover a good number of trite phrases and some commonplaces, to find out that we don’t know everything about the subject yet, though we can recite some mottos from memory. Needless to say that, sometimes, new readings don’t serve us well in undoing old clichés, on the contrary, they may help to perpetuate them. So we will have to make an effort to unwrap those ideas that have been used so often, which no longer have much meaning, and argue their point. Nonconformity is always healthy in small doses.
I’ve said, sometimes, that we were better children –as far as we knew how to face our parents- than parents –as far as we didn’t know how to face our children-. With our attitude –and integration power of contradictions inside capitalism- we have left them no place for transgression .
 Excerpt from the article ‘Contestación mundial’ (World Contestation) by Josep Ramoneda. El PAÍS, Saturday, 20th April, 2008.
The Devil’s Dictionary
Translated by Sara Plaza
I came across a few quotations from ‘The Devil’s Dictionary’ by Ambrose Bierce while I was going through the French Dokupedia website, where I had collaborated some time ago…
Ambrose Bierce was a curious guy endowed with a black humor, cynical and caustic, which helped him to reach a good position in North American literature. He was born in 1842 in a small village of Ohio (EE.UU.). Ambrose was the tenth out of thirteen brothers, who all were baptized names beginning with letter ‘A’. When the American Civil War broke out, Bierce joined the Union army as topographer. He fought in a number of battles, which left him some injuries and deep impressions that marked him and his writing forever.
Ambrose got married in 1871 and had tree children. Two of them would die before their parents in terrible circumstances and in 1880 his marriage was broken when he discovered some compromising letters that a secret admirer had sent to his wife, who died sort afterwards. Bierce’s character was shaped by all these experiences.
His lifetime was spent mainly in San Francisco (though he also lived in London for health reasons), where he developed an intense and fruitful literary activity for The San Francisco Newsletter, The Argonaut, Overland Monthly, The Wasp and San Francisco Examiner journals.
Ambrose wrote assays and news articles –which allowed him to win instant fame-, poetry and short stories, most of them regarding war experiences. Nevertheless, his most famous work is ‘The Devil’s Dictionary’. The entries of this peculiar dictionary were published in different journals during a long period of time (1875-1906), and were only compiled in one only volume in 1906 under the title of ‘Cynic’s Word Book’. In those definitions, Bierce displayed the unique style that would to immortalize him.
In October, 1913, when he was in his seventies, the author set off for Mexico, a country on the brink of a revolution. Bierce joined Pancho Villa’s forces as observer and disappeared without trace between 1913 and 1914. This is the most famous literary disappearance in North America. In his last letter, addressed to one niece of his, the writer uncovers part of the mystery, showing –one more time- his profound cynicism:
"Good-bye — if you hear of my being stood up against a Mexican stone wall and shot to rags please know that I think that a pretty good way to depart this life. It beats old age, disease, or falling down the cellar stairs. To be a Gringo in Mexico — ah, that is euthanasia!".
The sardonic look towards human nature that marked his work, together with his vehemence and his incisive criticism, won him the nickname of “Bitter Bierce”. At present, their critics remark the use of very pure English in his writings and an excellent wording through which he explained, in one only short phrase, complex groups of ideas (sometimes opposing each by means of the double meaning employed).
In 1911 the Dictionary was published under the present title ‘The Devil’s Dictionary’, as part of Bierce’s complete works. In 1967 a new extended version was compiled and a good number of entries –missing in the previous editions- were added. Finally, in 2000, it came to light a reviewed edition, which added some entries and removed over 200 meanings wrongly attributed to Bierce.
Some examples taken from ‘The Devil’s Dictionary’ will allow you to become aware of Ambrose’s sharpness, irony and use of double meaning. Pay attention, for instance, to the following harsh definitions, which, regretfully, take in real feelings of the early century (some of them might even be easily extended up to day):
ABORIGINES, n. Persons of little worth found cumbering the soil of a newly discovered country. They soon cease to cumber; they fertilize.
AFRICAN, n. A nigger that votes our way.
INFIDEL, n. In New York, one who does not believe in the Christian religion; in Constantinople, one who does.
IMMIGRANT, n. An unenlightened person who thinks one country better than another.
AIR, n. A nutritious substance supplied by a bountiful Providence for the fattening of the poor.
DISTANCE, n. The only thing that the rich are willing for the poor to call theirs, and keep.
Bierce examined the human nature in a clever new way with his unlimited inventiveness...
ACCUSE, v.t. To affirm another's guilt or unworth; most commonly as a justification of ourselves for having wronged him.
ADHERENT, n. A follower who has not yet obtained all that he expects to get.
FRIENDSHIP, n. A ship big enough to carry two in fair weather, but only one in foul.
JEALOUS, adj. Unduly concerned about the preservation of that which can be lost only if not worth keeping.
MEEKNESS, n. Uncommon patience in planning a revenge that is worth while.
IDIOT, n. A member of a large and powerful tribe whose influence in human affairs has always been dominant and controlling.
Now, a couple of definitions that might well have been applied to himself:
CYNIC, n. A blackguard whose faulty vision sees things as they are, not as they ought to be.
MAD, adj. Affected with a high degree of intellectual independence; not conforming to standards of thought, speech and action derived by the conformants from study of themselves; at odds with the majority; in short, unusual.
About definitions themselves and dictionaries, Bierce had a very particular opinion:
DICTIONARY, n. A malevolent literary device for cramping the growth of a language and making it hard and inelastic.
MAGNET, n. Something acted upon by magnetism.
MAGNETISM, n. Something acting upon a magnet. The two definitions immediately foregoing are condensed from the works of one thousand eminent scientists, who have illuminated the subject with a great white light, to the inexpressible advancement of human knowledge.
He also had a very definite point of view about writers and writing:
GRAMMAR, n. A system of pitfalls thoughtfully prepared for the feet for the self-made man, along the path by which he advances to distinction.
GOOSE, n. A bird that supplies quills for writing. These, by some occult process of nature, are penetrated and suffused with various degrees of the bird's intellectual energies and emotional character, so that when inked and drawn mechanically across paper by a person called an "author," there results a very fair and accurate transcript of the fowl's thought and feeling.
SERIAL, n. A literary work, usually a story that is not true, creeping through several issues of a newspaper or magazine. Frequently appended to each installment is a "synopsis of preceding chapters" for those who have not read them, but a direr need is a synopsis of succeeding chapters for those who do not intend to read them. A synopsis of the entire work would be still better.
Human customs did not escape him either:
CAT, n. A soft, indestructible automaton provided by nature to be kicked when things go wrong in the domestic circle.
MAMMALIA, n.pl. A family of vertebrate animals whose females in a state of nature suckle their young, but when civilized and enlightened put them out to nurse, or use the bottle.
BEGGAR, n. One who has relied on the assistance of his friends.
PITIFUL, adj. The state of an enemy or opponent after an imaginary encounter with oneself.
Although mainly focused on “human weakness”, he also included in his dictionary entries of very different taste. For example, politics:
AMNESTY, n. The state's magnanimity to those offenders whom it would be too expensive to punish.
BATTLE, n. A method of untying with the teeth of a political knot that would not yield to the tongue.
CANNON, n. An instrument employed in the rectification of national boundaries.
A few more examples might be:
CERBERUS, n. The watch-dog of Hades, whose duty it was to guard the entrance -- against whom or what does not clearly appear; everybody, sooner or later, had to go there, and nobody wanted to carry off the entrance.
CIRCUS, n. A place where horses, ponies and elephants are permitted to see men, women and children acting the fool.
FAITH, n. Belief without evidence in what is told by one who speaks without knowledge, of things without parallel.
HISTORY, n. An account mostly false, of events mostly unimportant, which are brought about by rulers mostly knaves, and soldiers mostly fools.
MYTHOLOGY, n. The body of a primitive people's beliefs concerning its origin, early history, heroes, deities and so forth, as distinguished from the true accounts which it invents later.
Anyway... This is just a sample of a great work that should not be left out of our own library. For those interested in the complete reading of this text –and who may have good access to Internet and the chance to read it from the computer-, the original book mat be downloaded from the Gutemberg Project website.
Allow me to say good bye to you with one more definition, and a doubt that won’t be able to uncover: What had Bierce written, in his very peculiar style, had he lived at the present moment?
LEARNING, n. The kind of ignorance distinguishing the studious.
[‘Society’ knows] ‘The price of everything and the value of nothing’
The society with capital ‘S’ that Oscar Wilde portrayed in late XIX century was London Victorian aristocracy: a group that was parodied in many works of the Irish writer, who highlighted the impotence of good in reaching a happy end inside its shallowness walls; ‘shallowness’ that, more than a century later, still remains in many other ‘upper-class’ examples worldwide; ‘upper’ attending not to their moral stature but to their astronomical bank accounts and high levels of corruption and hypocrisy.
This society, which in order to listen to themselves needs to silence dissonant voices, has almost nothing to say and very much to be ashamed of. This society, which knows the price of everything, has taken it upon them to make a vast majority of people believe that they are worth nothing. This society, which goes on living and believing their lies, encourages the rest to have faith in the truth. This society, which scorns memory, is the one that teaches us History. This society, which despises the life of many, pays a company that ‘assures’ theirs. This society, which does not cook for itself but is a lover of good food, is deforesting huge areas, poisoning the rivers and fatally wounding the land. This society, which lavishes miserable handouts on the poor, appropriates what is not theirs and keeps to itself what belongs to all.
Many have been against this society, which has room for very few, but the deafening sound of millions of bare feet, millions of chapped hands, millions of hungry mouths, millions of subdued eyes, millions of exiled dreams have not been able to pull down its walls or to shake its foundations yet. At the very bottom, these foundations might not be as strong as in the past but its structure keeps on being an example of architectural efficiency. I believe that its vitality has much to do with the growing sense of disenchantment experienced by the ones who saw how many of their projects faded away through their life and by those who do not know where to sow the seeds of theirs.
Two weeks ago, while Edgardo and I were visiting my family in Spain, the librarian that always goes with him put in my hands one of the volumes in which my parents had bound all the “Bustarviejo” magazines that the cultural association “El Bustar” published during tree decades in my village. Edgardo showed me the number 35-1 of February 1980. Inside there was an interview with my grandparents (my mum’s parents) written by the priest of my village at that time. I did not remember to have read it when I was seven years old and it was a great discovery at the age of thirty-five. Its title is ‘Mariano y Jesusa. El sufrimiento de los pobres’ (Mariano and Jesusa. The poor’s suffering) and begins with my grandmother’s words: ‘I have said it to my daughter already, the only thing that I can share with Antonio [the priest] are sorrows, nothing else but sorrows. So, when he come the only thing that I will tell him will be sorrows’. The final words were said by my grandfather after being asked why the youth had abandoned the land: ‘The land is ignored and treated as unimportant. The work is very hard, always looking up at the sky, dependent on the rain and the weather. You don’t get any vacation, any leave, or any extra payment. The land offers very few rewards to you. So, the youth has abandoned the land when they have had the opportunity of doing something different. They have left rural areas out of obligation and maybe considering that authorities do not reward it. The peasant has to live at the same level as the others do. The sharecropper and the poor have had to abandon the land for it has only been a matter of concern to them. The only ones who always get something are the great landowning families. The nation will not benefit from people leaving the countryside. The Government, concerning this matter, has not been right: has left the peasant aside. I believe that there are many trade unions and many other things that might be reduced and more attention should be paid to agriculture and cattle raising’. Immediately afterwards, the interviewer drew the reader’s attention to the number of complaints printed in Mariano’s words and I could not avoid smiling timidly. Of course there are complaints in their words, and I was surprised to find them in an interview where my grandparents remembered the sum of their defeats through their life. I was also surprised by the good sense of humor that they showed in their answers a couple of times despite their general touch of bitterness, and it hurt me to notice the harsh words that my grandfather used to talk about that sense of disenchantment I referred to in a previous paragraph. I knew that he had chosen to fight at the Republicans side during our Civil War and that he was in a concentration camp in France afterwards. I also knew that he never wanted to talk about it and that he was so insistent on asking his three sons and his one only daughter not to go into politics. His answer respecting this matter was very demonstrative: ‘I wash my hands, I packed it in. Since I was in France I quitted politics’.
No doubt a war, poverty, unemployment, the fact of being forced to abandon the place where one has lived because you are sentenced to death or to die of hunger, are sufficient grounds for the feeling of disenchantment, disillusion and disappointment. However, the heirs of those who suffered them should not forget that they are the nutrients that, on the one hand, enforce the shallowness in which the minority ‘upper-classes’ worldwide are enveloped and, on the other, revitalize the injustice that surrounds the large number of ‘low-classes’. They are key elements to allow the former to keep on putting a price on everything and to prevent the latter from recognizing their own value. For this reason, despite the fact that there are sufficient grounds for disinterest -and lost of hope and enthusiasm-, we should always find others for denouncing the origin and the cause of it. I am of the opinion that the seed of our projects will germinate in the lands we reclaim from our disappointment. On the contrary, the lands we keep on fertilizing with our disenchantment will only increase the impotence of good in reaching a happy end on either side of the walls that separate society with capital ‘S’ from the rest.
Some years ago, one of my teachers introduced me to Wilde’s works and only a couple of weeks ago the one to blame for this blog put in her accomplice’s hands a volume where I could read a short account of my grandparents’ life. I would like to say thank you to the teacher and to the librarian for the pages they set in front of me, and to their respective authors for writing and pronouncing the words that are printed in them.
Note: The title of this post belongs to words of Lord Darlington in Lady Windermere’s fan by Oscar Wilde.