Nicolás Gómez Dávila: There Is No Last Word

Colombian writer Nicolás Gómez Dávila.

Over the decades, due to a conjunction of factors, Nicolás Gómez Dávila (1913-1994) has remained on the periphery. Or, perhaps, on a discreet second plane. Although he is little remembered as a writer in the mass media, his work boasts a magnetism so powerful that he has devoted readers and true specialists in Colombia, Chile, Argentina, Mexico, Germany, Italy, and Spain. And it’s very probable that he has readers in other places and other languages as well.

Gómez Dávila was born and died in Bogotá. He lived part of his infancy, adolescence, and early childhood in Paris. When he returned to his city, at the age of twenty-three, he was a precociously cultured young man. He knew Greek and Latin, he had read dozens of authors of classical literature, and he had taken great strides toward his goal of reading in several languages. Those who have studied his library—now in the custody of the great Luis Ángel Arango Library in Bogotá—testify not only that he owned more than thirty thousand volumes, but also that his shelves held volumes in French, German, Spanish, English, Portuguese, and other languages. If every library provides information about its owner’s sensibilities, Gómez Dávila’s paints a picture of a persistent, multifaceted, refined, and multilingual reader. We even know that, at some moment, he tried to learn Danish in order to bring Kierkegaard to his own language.

Little is known about Gómez Dávila’s time in Paris. For two years, due to an illness, he was educated by private tutors. He attended a school of Benedictine monks, which was surely the source of his persistent Christian faith. He did not undertake university studies. Born in the bosom of a family of Bogotá’s high society, upon returning to his country, he had to dedicate part of his time to directing their business. Not only that: he also frequented the Jockey Club of Bogotá and kept up some level of social activity. He got married and, from his union with Emilia Nieto, three children were born. The image of Gómez Dávila shut up in his library, separated from the world and dedicated exclusively to reading and writing, is not quite right. Álvaro Mutis, Alberto Lleras Camargo, Hernando Téllez, Ernesto Volkening, and others were close conversation partners of his. It is likely that these friends watched Gómez Dávila’s library grow; that they were witnesses of the exhaustiveness with which he preserved his books—not a scratch, not an annotation. And that they were surprised by the breadth and depth of his literary, philosophical, historical, religious, and scientific knowledge.


Devotee of the Spanish Language

If we take as a reference the edition by Atalanta (Spain, 2009), which contains five collections (Escolios a un texto implícito 1, Escolios a un texto implícito 2, Nuevos escolios a un texto implícito 1, Nuevos escolios a un texto implícito 2, and Sucesivos escolios a un texto implícito), we can estimate that Gómez Dávila published between 11,500 and 12,000 escolios, or “scholia” in English. Each one is a piece of suggestive perfection: “The whole world goes opaque when our eyes get dirty.” Each one is a shining, skillfully drafted artefact: “Orden is the most fragile of social facts.” Each one is fitted with an inalienable will to mobilize thought: “No one is ridiculous in his place; anyone is in a place not his own.”

From the outset, the fact that Gómez Dávila avoided the term “aphorism” and opted to use “scholium”—a comment, a note that seeks to explain—suggests the extreme consciousness, the watchmaker’s precision with which he employs the Spanish language: “The more we generalize, the more errors, inanity, tedium grow.” There is no waste, there is never one word too many. Anyone who attempts the exercise of cutting even a single word from any of the scholia will find that they collapse or lose their meaning. Gómez Dávila writes—decants, cleans, polishes—his scholia (“The writer who hasn’t tortured his phrases tortures the reader”) so as to exercise full control of what he means to say: “To understand is not to brush against the phrase, but to cling to it.” And precisely because he assumes that the excesses of language entail their own dangers, he establishes, for himself, a precept of use: “One must write in a low voice.”

It seems paradoxical: the man who was formed through the exchange of diverse languages, who read ancient works in Greek and Latin, who explored the classics principally in French translation before unraveling other tongues, made Spanish his brilliant, expressive vehicle. His precise Spanish sets outlines (“History knows no solutions, only situations”); demarcates (“The philosophical lexicon is divided into words to think and words to think we think”); and also adopts the necessary plasticity to think about life itself (“To mature is to watch the growth of the number of things about which it seems grotesque to opine, in favor of or against”).


The Sculpting of the Scholia

In 1959, Gómez Dávila published the only book that compiles his works of “continuous prose.”  In an essay that barely reaches two pages, he praises, but also establishes a distance from, the genre of the novel, which “ignores capricious initiations and sudden interruptions, while other arts, on the contrary, know how to select abrupt pieces of existence to raise them up, incomparable, suspended, in the aesthetic space that absolves them of their vulgar nexi.” This dart thrown against the aspiration of continuity, of the total vision that is the sign of the novel, suggests this to me: in the universe of authors who gravitate toward scholia, except for Dostoyevsky, you can hardly feel the presence of narrators.

In one of his texts of continuous prose, he writes, “If I had to choose from the greatest of all books, I would choose the History of the Peloponnesian War.” In one of the scholia, he talks about other great fondnesses of his: “My patron saints: Montaigne and Burckhardt.” Thucydides, Tertullian, Pascal, Montaigne, Burckhardt, Kant, Baudelaire, Nietzsche, de Maistre, Barres, Maurras, Kierkegaard, Renan, Donoso Cortés, and more: these are a few, just a few, of the authors who, according to scholars, might be present, in affinity, in spirit, in the work of Gómez Dávila.

For years and years, in the silence of his library, our man read and wrote. He took notes in notebooks: in this way, he took the first steps that would lead to the creation of each scholium. The idea of the “implicit text,” it seems to me, might be mistaken. For example, try reading each scholium associated with a work or an author or a given thesis. The scholia are an autonomous product, the fruit of constant mental exercise, the thoughts of a man who lived in thought, the thoughts of a man who accumulated hundreds of thousands of pages of reading, hundreds of thousands of hours of writing. Gómez Dávila did not respond to the thought of others; rather, he built his own path, as personal as could be: “The cultured man is not one who goes around heavy with answers, but one who is capable of questions.”

Gómez Dávila’s method—if we can call it that—is not that of Georg Christoph Lichtenberg (1742-1799), who summarized the filtration of the everyday in his Notebooks: in its pages, there are not only aphorisms, but also a variety of anecdotes, occurrences, letters, and phrases with no clear meaning, perhaps designed to serve as reminders for other possible writings. Nor is it the method of Voces [Voices], by the Italian-Argentine Antonio Porchia (1885-1968), who made the format of the aphorism the vehicle of his poetic, autobiographical, imaginative, and ludic doings (Borges wrote of Porchia: “We might suspect that the author wrote them for himself”).

Gómez Dávila’s process seems closer to that of Elias Canetti, the author of that immense work—a crowning document of the twentieth century—that is his Apuntes [Notes]. In 1942, once he planned the research and writing of Masa y poder [Mass and power], Canetti created an autonomous work composed of brief annotations and aphorisms. When Canetti, seventeen years later, finished his project in 1959, he understood that he would never leave this practice behind. And so it was. Like Gómez Dávila, he dedicated himself to producing an autonomous, brilliant, and versatile body of work, an unwavering projection of the richness of his life as a man of letters.


God, the Man, the Thought

Nicolás Gómez Dávila followed no program of thought. In the ocean of his scholia there are issues that return, always reinvented, apparitions more than re-apparitions, revisions of the background, even, new points of view. Without a doubt, God is the axial subject of the scholia. At the start of his first book, we soon read: “For God there is nothing but individuals.” Twelve scholia later, he writes: “Any end different from God dishonors us.” Somewhere else, his message takes another path: “God is the truth of all illusions.” Or this, which we could read as a gesture of provocation: “God himself is the author of certain blasphemies.”

If we had to extract and organize all the scholia that name God, would we end up with some theology or, at least, a collection of principles? I don’t think so. The scholia, more than messages, are inquiries. Constructions that interrogate. In them, God does not remain immovable. Sometimes he is a humanized God (“The thirst of the great, the noble, the beautiful, is an unknown appetite of God”). In certain scholia, he is a less determinant entity: “God ends up as a parasite in the souls where ethics prevail.” In others, he is a being who opens the field for a philosophical debate: “We can only forgive God for the impertinence of forgiving because he understands.” But Gómez Dávila is not a fanatic, but a thinker who recognizes the risks of extreme faith: “He who is not willing to violate his principles every now and then, more than a martyr, ends up a murderer.”

At the same time, in a recurring way in all five books, Gómez Dávila displays a severe, cutting attitude toward men. The following succession of eight scholia suggests the plasticity and power of his critiques: “Man believes his impotence is the measure of things.” “To challenge God, man inflates his emptiness.” “We all try to buy off our voice, to refer to sin as mistakes or misfortune.” “Human is the adjective that serves to pardon any vileness.” “Man is more capable of heroic acts than decent acts.” “Vulgarity consists, basically, of being on familiar terms with Plato and Goethe.” “Most men die before their souls are born.” And, in my opinion the most terrible of his scholia, an incursion into the territories of nihilism: “The Antichrist is, probably, man.”

A third and insistent current to which I’d like to call attention, where it seems to me that Gómez Dávila’s thought reaches its greatest heights of beauty and sophistication, are the scholia dedicated to thought. They are thoughts about thought. Each one of the pieces I note below is, in its demanding brevity, the synthesis of a journey, but also an incitement to take leadership and press onward: “Nothing is more difficult than keeping an idea from leaving the place where it’s true.” “Immanent is, in the background, what we can define. Transcendent, what we can only describe.” “The calculable is subaltern.” “The myth corrects the precision of the concept.” “Once the sensation looks at itself, it becomes perverted.” “The truth of the paradoxical is experimental.” “Seen from inside, nothing is completely empty.” “The idea developed in a system commits suicide.” Gómez Dávila was interested in how we reason, how we use language, how we construct arguments to understand errors and weaknesses. I would go further: he was unsettled by the provisional nature of our relationships with God, with other humans, and with the word.


Darts and Desires

The quantity and diversity of the thought collected in the scholia is inexhaustible. Its paths weave in and out from all directions. Faith: “What we believe unites or separates us less than the way we believe it.” Social norms: “Society rewards garish virtues and discreet vices.” Criticism: “He who does not understand that two perfectly contrary attitudes can both be perfectly justified shouldn’t bother with criticism.” Human conduct: “Vanity is not affirmation, but interrogation.” Religiosity: “The Catholic must simplify his life and complicate his thought.” The tension between good and evil: “Evil doesn’t defeat like seduction, but like vertigo.” Philosophy: “A philosophy overcomes another when it defines with greater precision the same unsolvable mystery.” Romanticism: “Romanticism essentially expresses the desire to not be here: here in this place, here in this century, here in this world.” The problematization of the world: “True problems have not a solution but a story.”

A wide current in the scholia takes the shape of a dart: against marxism (“The marxist inherited his disdain for defeats from the bourgeois disdain for failures”), against progressive intellectuals, against the destruction of hierarchies, against ignorance (“With him who is ignorant of certain books, there is no possible discussion”), against journalism (“reading the newspaper debases he who it doesn’t desensitize”), against academicism, against ideologies (“History, if we follow it with party member’s eyes instead of observing it with the eyes of the curious, sways us stupidly between nostalgia and ire”), against progressivism (“The progressive runs through literatures like the puritan runs through cathedrals: with hammer in hand”), and against many other phenomena.

Another current, which I would call the current of his desires, gives off the deep pleasure produced in him by the sequence of reading, thinking, and writing: “The devil cannot take control of the soul that knows how to smile.” “Nature is revived in the hands of the metaphor.” “Oneiric poetry does not foresee, it snores.” “The world is not intact, nor abandoned.” “Each work of art answers a question that does not precede it.” “Aesthetic pleasure is the supreme criterion for well-born souls.” From this stream of his desires, one phrase deserves to be lifted out and shown off, since it is one of his most splendid achievements: “To refuse to admire is the mark of the beast.”


So Everything Is Open

In the final pages of Textos [Texts]—I’m looking at the edition published by Atalanta in 2010—Gómez Dávila includes “El reaccionario auténtico” [The authentic reactionary], in which he outlines the figure of the reactionary, in contrast to the figure of the progressive, in two variants: the liberal and the radical. It is a text that, additionally, presents a vision of history as the articulation of countless “free acts and dialectical processes.” In the closing of this memorable essay, he formulates a double boundary: “If the progressive flows toward the future, and the conservative toward the past, the reactionary doesn’t measure his desires by the history of yesterday nor by the history of tomorrow. The reactionary does not laud what the next dawn will bring, nor does he cling to the final shadows of the night. His dwelling is raised in that luminous space where the essences question him with their immortal presences.” The text closes with this brief paragraph: “The reactionary is not the nostalgic dreamer of extinguished pasts, but the hunter of sacred shadows on the eternal hills.” In a scholium that can be read as a verdict of himself, Gómez Dávila writes: “Reactionary thought is impotent and lucid.”

Elias Canetti wrote precise, well-argued praise of Blaise Pascal. His Pensamientos [Thoughts] have not only maintained their natural freshness over the centuries (“All the phrases, short and long, all the fragments of his phrases are like those of today”), but even more importantly: although they are forceful, they always leave an open door. That same legitimacy, which doesn’t demand to agree with each scholium, is clear in the work of Gómez Dávila. Whoever reads him will experience the rigor, the searching mind, the pedaling of his thought. He doesn’t repeat himself. He avoids all gratuitousness. He never says: this is the last word. He never gives us a scholium that does not bear a meaning, a question, an invitation—almost a demand—that compels us to keep thinking.

Translated by Arthur Dixon


LALT No. 6
Number 6

LALT No. 6 goes from the gripping true stories of literary journalism to the strange worlds of fantastic short stories and graphic literature. We highlight chronicles by Colombian journalist Alberto Salcedo Ramos, speculative fiction in a dossier curated by Mexican writer Alberto Chimal, and Yucatec Maya poetry and prose in our ongoing Indigenous Literature series. 

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