Rafael Cadenas: “Poor ‘I’ can’t fight the fact that we are mortal”: An Interview with Claudia Sierich


Malena Coelho, Paula Cadenas and her daughter (the author's granddaughter), Rafael Cadenas, and Milena González (his wife) at the Instituto Cultural Cabañas, Jalisco, Guadalajara, where he received the Premio FIL in 2009. Foto: Claudia Posadas. Púlsar Comunicación Cultural. 

The following interview is composed of extracts of a conversation that took place between Claudia Sierich and Rafael Cadenas in September 1999, published by Rafael Cadenas in Entrevistas (San Felipe, Venezuela: La Oruga Luminosa, 2000). We present it to our readers as a showing of the relevance of Cadenas’ thoughts regarding the themes discussed, 20 years later, at the presentation of the Premio Iberoamericano de Poesía Reina Sofía, which he received October 23 of the past year.

Claudia Sierich: Many poets and essayists work at translating. You do so as well, and I would like to know what translation means to you, especially when you are working with poetry.

Rafael Cadenas: In reality I don’t translate all that much. When I do it, I mostly think about the need to bring notoriety to something that, important as it is, is not in our language. That was what moved me to translate, for example, the conversations of Walt Whitman (not all of them, obviously) which were not in Spanish. In the United States they have not even been reedited. Whitman’s friend, Horace Traubel, wrote down what he told him. It was a labor of journalism similar to that of Boswell with Johnson and Eckermann with Goethe, except the works of these two authors are classics.

C.S.: The act of listening, recreating, and writing down would almost be a sort of translation.

R.C.: Yes, because interpreting is similar to translating. The three “interviewers” possessed extraordinary memory. My selection ended up as a very fresh book that enriches Whitman’s image. Regarding Lawrence, I chose the poems that interested me most from his book Pansies (Thoughts) that still strikes me—how do I say this—as very therapeutic for its call for truth with oneself. Later, while editing La liebre libre that Harry Almela put into motion, I added poems from another book. It is Nijinsky’s, also a brief selection, sold out some time ago.

C.S.: How are words, poetry, and music related?

R.C.: It is difficult for me to imagine the relationship you’re talking about because the work is inevitably conceptual, and music is not. There are poets that give sound more importance than it deserves. Poetry is not music. The Dadaists gave an extreme example: they created the sound poem, extracting meaning from language. They produced sounds, but that has nothing to do with poetry.

C.S.: You have said that the Cuadernos del Destierro were the seed for what you wrote later.

R.C.: Yes, that book is a mix of poems and prose and a large part of what I wrote later follows that same form, about which there is still a certain amount of confusion. There is a tendency to consider a poem in prose as poetic prose. I know of anthologies of poems in prose where they are hardly found.

C.S.: In one of your free verses in Amante you manage to get out in almost a single breach “to love, to write, and to observe.” Could it be said that they are synonyms for you, in your life?

R.C.: All of this is united, but we are always dividing things. We make many things of what are really just acts of love. Simple things in daily life that are filled with an energy that can be called love are better off not receiving a name. I avoid that word because it is overused. The same thing has occurred with other things, sometimes important, now little more than empty vessels in the repertoire of triviality.

C.C.: What relationship do you maintain with your writing for yourself, today?

R.C.: I practically don’t have a relationship with what I have written. When I publish a book, I forget about it, unless I have to prepare another edition or a public talk or a selection for translation. There are texts where I no longer recognize myself; it is inevitable, since we are ever-changing.

C.S.: Do you consider yourself a pessimist?

R.C.: I am neither a pessimist nor an optimist. Rather, I am tied—strapped—to reality, which is always fantastic but rarely presented as such. In this sense, certainly, I always accompany Borges.

C.S.: Rilke said once that “art work is the result of having been in danger, of having gone to the extreme of an experience that no man can surpass.” Have you been in danger, in that danger?

R.C.: The soul is always in danger. But I don’t want to elaborate on that claim. I prefer to leave it like that, simple. I want to tell you a feeling that I always carry: living and doing what human beings do, knowing ourselves to be fleeting, moves me to believe that there is a sustaining force outside of me, perhaps what Shaw calls a “life force.” I used to believe that the living and doing could be considered a sort of humble feat, but no; now it appears to me as something more transpersonal. Poor “I” can’t fight the fact that we are mortal.

C.S.: What does happiness mean for you?

R.C.: Happiness is another one of those words that I avoid. Perhaps it is because I don’t know what it means. Living, that bizarre mystery known as living, is enough for me, and I try to be in the now. This should not be confused with what has been termed presentism, which is really the idea of living for pleasure. It is not about that. The idea is to be present, open, attentive, up with reality, with what is happening. Amante, at the end, expresses what I am trying to tell you, which is central for me. Worrying about happiness is just for adults. “As a child,” says Alister Reid in my translating of phrases attuned to Zen, “I did not know what happiness was and whether I was happy or not. I was too busy being.”

C.S.: “Language is the dwelling place of being. The man lives in his house. The thinkers and poets are his guardians,” writes Heidegger in his Letter on Humanism. As one of those guardians, you have said in your Anotactiones that “the bankruptcy of language is the bankruptcy of culture, society, the spirit.” In another part, you state that “A people without a linguistic consciousness ends up repeating the swindler’s slogans; that is to say, it dies as a people.” On the other hand, Mao, very indicatively, says that “the pen exists to scratch the soul.” Talk to me about that, and also about what those thoughts mean for us today as Venezuelans.

R.C.: The world of men is evidently linguistic, but that world exists within a vaster reality. In it language is essential, since man cannot be conceived without the word; and the power to recognize being is a great privilege, because plants and animals simply live, but without conscience or with a very rudimentary mind. Man has a special rank within the “great chain of life.” For the Greeks he was the eloquent animal, the talking animal, but the concept of being goes much further than words and further than man; being is omnipresent, uncatchable, inconceivable. “To be” is one of those words created to encompass those things that cannot quite be named. It’s like Tao.

It is important for us to get closer to that idea, because it helps to smooth the superiority of “I” that reaches immaturity.

C.S.: The word is also related with what we call power. I would like to ask you about power. Is it somewhere between the antithesis of psychopathy and opportunity?

R.C.: Cioran considers it “the great curse of humanity.” Behind it lies ego, with its fervor for affirmation, dominance, and pleasure. There is something sick about it. Many of history’s great personalities have been psychopaths, and many don’t want to recognize that. When we speak about power, we only think about the field of politics, where it is easier to note, but its ugly face is found everywhere because it is rooted in the human being, whatever his role. Only deep reflection can liberate man from this morbidity. Can politicians be cured? It is possible; they would be those in whom the idea of service occupies the center of their lives. They are the minority. The majority “enter politics” by joining a party in search of some personal benefit.

Nationalism, which I detest, is like an extension of the ego. I believe that humanity, for reasons of survival, tends toward a global federation that will do away with the current idea of nation states, that like every product of history is fleeting. A man will continue to love the part of the planet where he is born, but it will be something different.

One of the surprises of this century is that the Marxists, internationalists in doctrine, became nationalists. In one of your questions, you mention Mao, the last emperor of China, deified in life, but one must search out the truth. I believe that the hundred flowers business was a trick; the cultural revolution, a civil war, a horror; many hideous things have been said about his life. I do not understand—it took me fifty years to not understand—how regimes that promise to liberate man start by taking away his liberty. I prefer Lao Tse and Chuang Zu, great dialectical thinkers, perhaps more important than Heraclitus, from whom only fragments have reached us.

C.S.: What does it mean to you to be revolutionary?

R.C.: It is an internal matter; it has to do with the living that I was telling you about, living in the now, living without the weight of so many unexamined ideas. The word “awareness” basically covers what I am trying to say. Perhaps this sounds odd, but I believe that the current world is not fertile ground for revolutions. The man of this century has seen several and must be blind to not see that they have failed, and that it would be better to seek after some other thing; I wouldn’t know what. Revolutions also have an awful tendency to end in dictatorships.

C.S.: It depends on where the revolution happens. You place it internally while others place it…

R.C.: In the social and political plane. But the key—the essential ingredient—is the individual. The most important factor is what happens within him, and that is reflected in society. Of course, the social or political reforms are important. It would be absurd to oppose necessary change.

Revolutions also uniform the people. There is no place for the individual there. For example, think of today’s China. There is horrifying collectivism. Their achievements, however impressive, do not dazzle me. That is not a democratic society. Enough with the silliness, that’s a dictatorship with military support. It is not a good political example for our country, just like the Arabic countries. The democratic regime does not just accept dissidents but protects them and supports their right to dissent. It is a foolish government that does not see the importance of criticism.   

C.S.: What value do silence and refusing to act have, at the moment of participating in the reality that surrounds us? Especially in this agitated time of generalized hypnosis that we live in.

R.C.: As Camus says, at least that way we don’t make existing evils worse, as I once remembered in another interview. What the French author says about Taoism.

C.S.: In our life we find a few books that we don’t forget, that change us, that mark cesura, a cesura that you have caused in many of your readers. I would like to know what you have to say about your reading.

R.C.: As an incurable reader to the end, there are many books that have influenced me. If I mention any of them to you, it will be unfair to the others. Recently, since I have to speak in Barquisimeto about the generation of ’98, I was rereading Unamuno, Ortega, and Azaña, who despite his role as a politician and president of the Republic was a great writer. His diaries can be enlightening today, as long as one is disposed to learn. In his pages we see him wrestle with the far right and the far left, which led to the failure of the Republic, as in Chile. In Spain the madness of war was loosed, and the Spaniards enthusiastically gave themselves over to killing each other, that old pastime of humanity.

C.S.: Rafael, thank you very much for this conversation.

Translated by Michael Redzich


LALT Number 9
Number 9

Latin American Literature Today begins its third year of publication with an issue that takes in Venezuelan poetry, the writing of indigenous women, and the strange worlds of fiction. We open the journal's second volume with a dossier dedicated to Samanta Schweblin, an Argentine writer whose work tests the limits between the fantastic and the real, and then we shift to the poetry of Venezuelan poet Rafael Cadenas, winner of the 2018 Premio Reina Sofía de Poesía Iberoamericana. We also pause over Mapuche poetry, with a special selection of four young women poets who write in Mapuzungun and in Spanish, and we also stay up to date with the present debates surrounding one of the central figures of twentieth-century Latin American literature, Pablo Neruda, with an exclusive interview of his biographer Mark Eisner.

Table of Contents

Editor's Note

Featured Author: Samanta Schweblin

Dossier: Chicanx Literature

Indigenous Literature






Translation Previews and New Releases

Nota Bene