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2010.05.13 =>

Soledad, Destierro, Crimen


For her exam J. was rereading One Hundred Years of Solitude and put the question to the floor: what is this Spanish or Spanish-American concept of solitude? Does everyone have it? What would a life without solitude look like? I find it alien, she said, because my thoughts of solitude are all positive; and that turned out to be the answer, that in North America we have Emerson’s self-reliance, the voluntary rejection of the world in favor of one’s private kingdom, but in Spanish America you have soledad, the world’s sign that it has rejected you. It’s a rural condition, bound to a landscape which is itself an unhealed historical wound. Massachusetts has Walden, and Mexico has Juan Rulfo’s Comala (phantom village, hell’s doorstep); Spain has Juan Benet’s Región (waste battlefield of the Guerra Civil, guarded by murderous shepherd-king); Colombia has Macondo (edge of the map, once thought falsely to be an island—rodeado de agua por todas partes—finally plunged incestuously into itself and annihilated). History has happened, or is happening, elsewhere, and for you it has but one perceptible gift: dead land, walled cell.

Where does soledad start? Luis de Góngora lived under Philips Two through Four and got to see the Spanish monarchy in several distinct stages of nightmare buffoonery; was shuttled between Church and state appointments in Madrid, Córdoba, Salamanca; was hated—really hated—by a powerful rival who in the face of the Inquisition called him a homosexual, a converted Jew, and toward the end of his ailing life got him kicked out of his house. In 1609, at the end of one unhappy stay in Madrid, Góngora wrote an extraordinary kiss-off which began ¡Malhaya el que en señores idolatra!—woe to him who worships the great—and went on for a hundred bilious lines. He refuses to join the court’s sierpe prodigiosa, its conga line of lackeys, and instead declares allegiance to the lonely countryside:

¡Oh Soledad, de la quietud divina
dulce prenda, aunque muda, ciudadana
del campo, y de sus Ecos convecina!

This is the sweet solitude of pastoral—gardens, pools, songbirds—and what’s more, it really existed. Outside his native Córdoba Góngora had rented an orchard from the local authorities, and he retired there after wrapping up his affairs at court. Yet after a few years he went back to the capital; though documentary evidence is slight, there seem to have been lawsuits involving family members, as well as the promise of further prestige (in 1617 he became, briefly, Philip III’s honorary chaplain). It seems doubtful that his years in the orchard were free of cares or ambitions. But he wrote his greatest poems in that time, including the unfinished Soledades.

Like most words in Góngora, this soledad can mean various things: it seems to be geographical, describing an unpeopled area, but also to mean solitude as a state of soul. There were to be four soledades: a soledad of the fields, a soledad of the rivers, a soledad of the forests, a soledad of the wasteland. Only the first and part of the second were written, and given Góngora’s style, their incompletion makes it difficult to say just what has happened. A peregrino, shipwrecked pilgrim, is washed up on a remote coast and encounters shepherds; his clothes and bearing are aristocratic, but he reveals almost nothing of his origin. In one passage he apostrophizes the ocean over which he has wandered for years; it seems that he has suffered obscure misfortunes at home, including unrequited love, and is now in a state of exile, destierro, having lost his land. We thus have a number of conventions obscurely layered: the political exile fleeing disgrace at home, the knight errant wandering far from his mistress, the pilgrim seeking his spiritual homeland in God. The poem is structured so that the ocean can hear him:

No es sordo el mar (la erudición engaña),
bien que tal vez, sañudo,
no oya al piloto, o le responda fiero:
sereno, disimula más orejas
que sembró dulces quejas,
canoro labrador, el forastero
en su undosa campaña.
Espongïoso pues se bebió y mudo
el lagrimoso reconocimiento,
de cuyos dulces números no poca
concentüosa suma,
en los dos giros de invisible pluma
que fingen sus dos alas, hurtó el viento;
Eco, vestida una cavada roca,
solicitó curiosa y guardó avara
la más dulce, si no la menos clara
sílaba, siendo en tanto
la vista de las chozas fin del canto.

The sea is not deaf (on this point the authorities deceive us), though in its rage it may refuse to hear the pilot, or reply in anger; when calm, its secret ears number more than the sweet complaints that the stranger, melodious earthworker, sowed in its undulating field. Like a sponge it mutely drank his tear-strewn cries of recognition, of whose sweetnesses the wind stole not a few, by two drafts of the invisible pen forged by its two wings; Echo, in the guise of a rock’s concavity, begged out of curiosity, then jealously kept back the sweetest (if not the least clear) syllable, just as the sight of the cottages put an end to the song.

Elaborated description follows of the sea and shoreline; comprehension is regularly strained; and it is some time before we return to our pilgrim. We learn no more of his plight. But this short passage serves as well as any to show why the place is a soledad, geographically and spiritually, despite being packed with an apparently quite active shepherd society. Personification is everywhere, piling trope on trope; the familiar angry sea is only the first in a series of moves that will bring us the mute sponge, the thieving wind (with its invisible pen that apparently writes bad checks), and finally the nymph Echo bucking her nature and refusing to send back the words she catches. The corollary to this is that the poem’s human figures are just as much landscape, and no matter how many bucolic banquets and courtships we read through, they will all retain the structure of the ocean passage: a wanderer addresses a landscape, and the landscape alters in reply. And of course the land is a mirror to the wanderer, as the poem’s title insists that he and it are one: he feels soledad, and soledad is where he has come. The old pastoral conventions have found a weird new function, to animate nature in such a way as to constantly signal an expulsion from the human world, though they lack a structure which would allow the expulsion even to be described, much less resolved. In the poem’s dedication Góngora freely equates himself and his peregrino, and one has to think of the poet in his orchard, having built himself a place outside the forcefield of state power yet sensing already that, from compulsion or from choice, he won’t be able to keep away.


In 1927 Góngora had been dead three hundred years and the trecentennial date, as is famous, gave its name to the first great constellation of Spanish poetry since the Baroque: not just García Lorca but Dámaso Alonso, the scholar-poet who wrote classic commentaries to the great works, Rafael Alberti who tried to extend them with a Soledad tercera, Pedro Salinas the poet of secular love, Aleixandre and Diego and Guillén with their hymns of earthly praise. They hung out with Dalí and Buñuel and took surrealism seriously, because they saw that it renewed the possibility of doing what Góngora had done: to merge the human and inhuman, to discern the latent universe in each thing and give it life. Lorca, in the lecture at El Ateneo in Seville which was his contribution to the trecentennial, did his best to make the links explicit. He said that the Academicians had failed to break one finger off the impeccable marble statue that was don Luis, but that the surrealist moon had cracked the Hebraic tip of his nose. He said that Mallarmé, who hardly knew Góngora, was nonethless his best disciple: they loved the same swans, mirrors, harsh moons, women’s hairstyles, and shared the Baroque’s rigid tremor. He said that Góngora required the elements to be conscious; he denies that the sea is deaf because he hates deafness, hates dark forces without limits. Yet Lorca closes this talk on pure poetry and the joy of metaphor with the figure of don Luis in old age, as a broken man, returning to Córdoba, la cuidad más melancólica de Andalucía... ya es una ruina. The city is like an old fountain [fuente] that has lost the key to its spout [surtidor]. Where are we? It is as if the dying Góngora has stumbled into the twentieth century, as if we have just seen Primo de Rivera announce “a brief parenthesis in the constitutional life of Spain,” start his war in Morocco and outlaw the Catalan language. No poet had an imagination dark enough to predict the sort of poetry that everyone would be writing a few years forward, but Lorca’s broken spout (which I picture as parched and rusted, filmed over with dust) does come back after the Guerra Civil, and very much in the context of solitude.

There was another Andalusian in the Generation of ‘27, from Málaga, one of the youngest in the bunch, who came to Madrid as a university student and had his first taste of exile at age 21, when a lung disease sent him to Mann’s magic mountain, the Waldsanatorium in Switzerland, for a year of secluded reading. In photographs he has an elongated, fragile-looking head and owlish circular spectacles; his name, Emilio Prados, must have given him a foredoomed sense of identity with the landscape. (Prado: meadowland, the public walk in Madrid.) In 1936 Andalusia discovers Lorca on a lonely road and kills him; Prados, one last time, repeats the old move from the country to the capital. That fall he reads on the radio his Ciudad sitiada—besieged city— a poem in which he sees himself among cañones, moves between cañones (canyons, or cannons); where does the city begin, or it that his body is the city—o es, Madrid, que eres mi cuerpo? In 1938 he and his comrades in the Alianza de Intelectuales Antifascistas are forced back to Barcelona. In 1939 he departs for Mexico.

His first years of exile are spent in publishing houses. He lives in a tiny Mexico City apartment, wears secondhand clothes, depends on friends for his medicine. He writes to his brother, on company letterhead: here where I am neither needed nor happy, I work as an oficinista, a poor corrector of test prints from the press, without independence, nor soledad, nor silence... it is now a month and a half that they haven’t paid me. Like Góngora he craves soledad, even imposes it on himself. At the same time soledad is a condition he can’t escape. For the rest of his life family and friends will entreat him to come back to Málaga, but he always refuses. The siege has not been lifted. His poetic recourse is to make declarations of soledad: he writes them at night, many of them, better poems than ever before. In 1946 they are published as Jardín cerrado, a shut garden which—the poet explicitly tells us—is also his own body, the soul’s closed camp.

Oliva, olivar, olivo:
¡que viene el día!
(Y duerme el río...)
Olivo, olivar, oliva:
¡que viene el río!
(Y duerme el día...)

Olivo, oliva, olivar:
mi olvido, olvida olvidar...


Olive fruit, olive grove, olive tree; let the day come (and the river sleeps...). Olive tree, olive grove, olive fruit; let the river come (and the day sleeps...). These combinatorics gradually release the implied verb olvidar, to forget: my forgetfulness, forgets the forgetting...

Olive tree!

That is the whole of the poem, and that is, in general, how these poems work. Their elements are few, chosen from the things of the garden: poplar and jasmine, oleander and myrtle, moon and bright star. The garden is Andalusian, made of running water: the fuente and the surtido from Lorca’s lecture are here, also estanque, pond, and acequia, irrigation canal. The legacy of surrealism meets the logic of Góngora’s pilgrim in the live landscape; there are voices in the poems, asking and answering, but no human figures as such. Rather the things of the garden are given the Spanish emotional vocabulary: they possess hearts, blood, tears. The surtidor laments, the poet will pull a spine from it; the butterfly, the fairest tree, the soul itself lie at the bottom of the pond. The jardín cerrado is also a jardín perdido, both the place of the poet’s exile and the place he is exiled from. He is shut in and shut out.

Todos vienen a darme consejo.
Yo estoy dormido junto a un pozo.

Everyone comes to give me advice. I am sleeping next to a well. This poem is unusual in that other figures approach, but they are kept on the borders. Probably there are no more o sounds than in any paragraph of Spanish, but they somehow knit the lines into a murmur of weariness and indifference—a murmur which, I must say, has been often in my mind over the last year.

Todos se acercan y me dicen:
—La vida se te va,
y tú te tiendes en la yerba,
bajo la luz más tenue del crepúsculo,
atento solamente
a mirar cómo nace
el temblor del lucero
o el pequeño rumor
del agua, entre los árboles.


Todos se acercan para decirme:
—Tú duermes en la tierra
y tu corazón sangra
y sangra, gota a gota,
ya sin dolor, encima de tu sueño,
como en lo más oculto
del jardín, en la noche,
ya sin olor, se muere la violeta.

Todos vienen a darme consejo.
Yo estoy dormido junto a un pozo.

Say the others: life is departing from you, your heart bleeds drop by drop upon your dream, like the violet that dies in the hidden corner of the garden, and you sleep on the grass, you see only the trembling star, hear only the murmur of water. The poet is being asked to open his shut garden. But soledad is not broached so easily, and the poet gives his conditions:

Sólo, si algún amigo
se acerca, y sin pregunta,
me da su abrazo entre las sombras:
lo llevo hasta asomarnos
al borde, juntos, del abismo,
y, en sus profundas aguas,
ver llorar a la luna y su reflejo,
que más tarde ha de hundirse
como piedra de oro,
bajo el otoño friío de la muerte.

Only if some friend approaches, without a question, and gives me his embrace among the shadows: I lead him, together we reach the border of the abyss, in its deep waters we see the weeping moon and its reflection, which must sink like a golden stone under the cold autumn of death.

This is not the response the advising voices wanted. Nor does it describe any condition whose fulfillment the poet expects: not while he labors in a foreign land, and certainly not back home in a Málaga that returns Franco’s salute. That is the point of treating the lost country, and the lost self, as empty gardens. It is usurpers who live there now. They have no place in the poem.


Exile is the wound from injuries done by a people against a land. Injury has been on my mind this week, since I have my own desert garden a mile or two from the house where I grew up, with gravel paths running between the different kinds of prickly pear; staghorn cholla, barrel and fishhook cactus; mesquite, ironwood, catclaw acacia; foothill and blue palo verde. At dusk you see quail run through the brush, and the woodpeckers become loud, shouting their way from perch to perch; you recognize the phainopepla by the white underwing that flashes against its black body. There are ramadas shaded with saguaro ribs. In the center is a tiled fountain and a pond with tiny fish. My mother was married here.

What is happening in Arizona is not foreign to America as a whole; it’s only the amplification effect of the desert. Yet those hypothetical questions from your high-school history of the twentieth century—what would you do if your homeland passed a race law?—gain no clarity when they become actual. This week I’ve gone looking for I don’t know what kind of explanation, and ended up at comment threads dripping a kind of poison that I haven’t seen since high school. I’d forgotten it was there, and am somehow surprised to find it has gone on without me; it’s a long time since I had to think about all those stupid and cruel boys, already set on the path, I suppose, that will one day turn them into J.D. Hayworth, our nativist talk-show bully who is now running for high office from Phoenix and has nothing to fear from the new bill proposing that candidates be required to flourish their birth certificates, since he knows that he is American, and that his claim to the landscape is as good as mine. Kafka once wondered if the past, one’s heritage, wasn’t the hardest of all things to earn. This is how easily it goes; a ghoul steps between you and your childhood, and takes the garden away.

Soledad: enemies come unbidden. What should we be doing for friends?


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