Before Objects: Emar and the New Physics

Before Objects: Emar and the New Physics


This essay is dedicated to a little-known article published by Juan Emar in 1935, in which he addresses subjects such as excision, self-awareness, and our understanding of the world around us, considering the new paradigms that were emerging at the time of writing.

Juan Emar engaged in many varied artistic and cultural activities. An amateur painter, lifelong writer, and promoter of the avant-garde in the pages of his “Notas de Arte” [Art Notes] published in Santiago daily La Nación between 1923 and 1927, he published his three novels—Miltín 1934, Un año [One year], and Ayer [Yesterday]—in 1935. At the end of the same year, “Frente a los objetos” [Before objects] appeared in a short-lived magazine of Chilean and international current events called Todo el Mundo en Síntesis [The whole world in synthesis]. This brief text, identified by its author as an excerpt from a novel, addresses the fragmentation of the subject, self-reflexivity, epistemological proposals, and relational understanding: subjects that appear frequently in the creative work of this representative of the Chilean avant-garde.


Unfolding, Oneness, and Gaze

In “Frente a los objetos,” Emar elaborates the division of the self through the image of a subject that, after reading and observing surrealist works, leafs through itself: an act that, for the writer, always implies an initial unfolding. Emar’s imagined process assumes the existence of two subjects with complementary tasks and gazes: “One self who acts; one self who observes the one who acts.” This duality grows clearer with details: “The first throws itself into crashing against everyday desires, throws itself into love, throws itself into hate. The second, immobile.”

Excision and its opposite, complementarity, allow the narrator to reach his permanent longings: first, to be another; second, to glimpse unity. With the subject constructed as a ubiquitous and perceptive being that can “look at the world from any place and under any personality,” it is necessary to understand how Emar addresses the process of knowledge.

He distinguishes two possible forms of gaze. The inattentive mind “fixes its eyes on each object in isolation, gazes upon it as the only one in the universe, without relationships, without prolongations, without commitments [...]. And upon looking away from an object, it is abandoned forever.” He adds: this is “the world of separativity.” The active mind, on the other hand, tends to grasp unity, “uniquely through the relationships, the prolongations, the ‘commitments’ of objects; when each object, erasing a little its own, delimited identity, becomes only a point of support for our total thought, a symbolic sign more than a lone reality in space.”

The active mind that interests Emar is revealed through two examples. In the first, the subject perceives a “whole formed of three absolute isolations: huaco, books, portrait.” But soon, each part of these objects will be absorbed “in order to be committed in a new meaning, perhaps of eternity.” In the second, he describes a still life painted by his friend Luis Vargas Rosas in 1919, which now hangs on the wall of a doctor’s waiting room. More than the canvas itself, Emar underlines the multiplicity of relationships it delimits: A) the location of the canvas (streets, building, floor); B) the landscape observed through the window in the room (nearby, the roof of the archbishopric and the towers of the cathedral; far away, the sky and the mountains); and C) realities perceived through the senses within the room (woman, obnoxious child, the song “Los tres chanchitos” [The three little pigs] on the radio, smell of sandalwood). The speaker summarizes: “For no less than half an hour I lived leaping between the archbishopric, towers, sky, clouds, old lady, obnoxious child, little pigs, sandalwood, and visions of 1919.”


The Attentive Gaze: the Subject and the New Physics

The fracturing and transformation of the self is one of the bases of the active gaze. The integrated, illuminist subject, equipped with the capacity of reason and consciousness, gives rise to a subjectivity and a fluency between various antinomies, among which we find the antinomy of subject and object. Here emerges “the observed observer, observing himself observing,” the manifestation of a continuous self-reflexivity and an epistemic self-awareness that characterize the subject of modernity. The self does not grasp the world in and of itself, but rather the world “mediated by our knowledge, by our gaze, by our language,” an activity in which the subject constitutes itself and is modified in permanent dialogue with the other, with discursive formations, and with external worlds.

The way of knowing born of the new physics is another base of the attentive gaze. In the mechanistic paradigm, nature is considered “as independent, not only of God, but also of man; it develops an ‘objective’ description or explanation of nature” that is independent of the human observer and of the process of knowledge. Within this mechanistic focus lies the conviction that there exists a distance between subject and object, as David Peat suggests: “There was a universe out there, and here was the man, the observer, safe and protected from the universe.”

In the new holistic paradigm born of exploration of the atomic and subatomic world, this process of observation is insufficient. The minimal components of matter cannot be analyzed without taking into account the interaction between the observed object and the instruments of measurement. In the quantum world, “the old world observer must simply be eliminated—[...] and for the observer we must substitute the new word participant. In this way, we have come to understand that the universe is a universe of participation” and that it is essential to “explicitly include epistemology [...]—in the description of natural phenomena,” as Fritjof Capra maintains.

This change in the process of observation generates new complexities. The physicist assumes that it is no longer permissible to simply speak of nature “in and of itself.” Natural science always presupposes man, and now man finds nothing more than himself in the universe. Heisenberg adds that the object of observation in science is not “nature itself, but nature subjected to interrogation by men,” such that it is necessary “to take our own knowledge as the only object of science and to assume that the image of nature implies assuming our relationship with nature, not nature itself.”

The notion of the objective reality of elementary particles dissolves, and physicists conclude that they “have no meaning as isolated entities, but as correlations or connections between various processes of observation and measurement.” From this perspective, subatomic particles “are not ‘things’ but correlations of ‘things’ that, at the same time, are correlations of other ‘things,’ and so on and so forth. In quantum theory, there is never a ‘thing’; there are always correlations between ‘things.’”

These reflections belong to Georg Nicolai, German doctor, pacifist, and friend of Albert Einstein, who taught them in Chile in the thirties. Also close to Emar, Huidobro, and other artists, this European scholar maintained that neither the soul nor the world “are things themselves or absolute realities, but rather products of a correlation.” And, almost in the same words used by Emar and the physicist Fritjof Capra, he argued that “one must give up on knowing anything about the essence of isolated things” because it is necessary “to study, in contrast, the relationship between things.” At question, he claims, is “a new, invariable certainty: not things themselves, but the relation between them.”

In the mechanistic paradigm, finally, it is assumed that “in any complex system the dynamics of the whole can be understood based on the properties of the parts.” Capra maintains that in the new paradigm “the relationship between the parts and the whole is inverted. The properties of the parts can only be understood based on the dynamics of the whole.” Subatomic particles—and, consequently, all parts of the universe—cannot be conceived of as isolated entities, and must be defined through their correlations. Like matter, “nature is not formed of basic isolated components; it is, on the contrary, a complex network of relationships between the different parts of a unified whole.”

Nicolai soon pointed out these changes. Again, with words very similar to Capra’s, he indicated that, if every explanation of nature is reduced “to a knowledge of relationships, we can formulate no affirmation regarding the reality of an isolated phenomenon, but only regarding the totality of the universe,” since “each part of the universe influences the rest and is influenced by it. Only the universe in its totality can be absolute.” He concludes that “the great law of mutual correlation that we noticed for the first time in the microcosm of the organism is, in the living being, only a reflection of a more general law. In the macrocosm of the universe as well, everything depends on everything.”

“Frente a los objetos” is not removed from these approaches. The title highlights the epistemological problem into which Emar hopes to delve. The Chilean writer puts forth a mechanism by which to grasp the whole of the reality he expressed in his novels, in which we always find the one who acts and the one who observes, the one who lives and experiences alongside the one who contemplates and elaborates. Emar understands that the multiple subject must make distinct observations, from distinct sides and distinct angles: a perspective that draws him closer to cubism. His attentive gaze always defines the object, Vargas Rosas’s canvas, within a complex network of relations, connections, and prolongations, because everything depends on everything; in this way, more than a “still life” itself, what we appreciate in this fragment from 1935 is a form of knowledge of the still life, a process that passes through the relationship with the canvas. In “Frente a los objetos” we do not reach the “still life,” because we are always faced with the correlations between it and other things.


Final Words

Italo Calvino, studying multiplicity, alludes to the works of Carlo Emilio Gadda, in which the world is represented in its tremendous complexity through the simultaneous presence of the most heterogeneous elements, which concur in order to determine an occurrence. Calvino adds: whatever the starting point may be, the discourse is broadened in order to take in ever vaster horizons, and if it could continue to develop in all directions, it would eventually take in the whole universe. This is what happens in Emar’s description of the still life by Vargas Rosas. “Frente a los objetos” and Emar’s writing are “a proposal for the next millennium.”

The great attraction of Emar’s vision is that the narrator represents the world without attenuating its astonishing complexity, since each occurrence, character (the one who lives and experiences), and object (the canvas of Vargas Rosas) is seen as the center of a network of relations that must continue to be followed. For this reason, the storyteller (the one who observes and elaborates) multiplies details, his descriptions become infinite and the discourse expands in multiple directions until ending with the revelation of the whole world. In this perspective, Emar’s work lacks centers of orientation, it is ambiguous, it reveals a world without certainties; it is an open work in which each element can “meet and correlate with other centers of allusion, still open to new constellations and to new likelihoods of reading,” Umberto Eco would say. “Frente a los objetos” and Emar’s writing are an “epistemological metaphor,” refracting the way in which the science and culture of his time apprehended reality.

Patricio Lizama

Translated by Arthur Dixon


Mario Bellatin
Number 13

In our thirteenth issue, we feature two innovative, hard-to-define figures of Latin American letters: from the present, Mexican writer Mario Bellatin, and from the past, Chilean writer Juan Emar. Together with these authors, we highlight Latin American theatre for the first time with a script by Ramón Griffero, Nahuatl-language poetry by Martín Tonalmeyotl, plus interviews, book reviews, exclusive previews, and more from writers including Rosario Castellanos, César Aira, and Salgado Maranhão.

Table of Contents

Editor's Note

Featured Author: Mario Bellatin

Dossier: Juan Emar



Brazilian Literature

Indigenous Literature



Translation Previews and New Releases

On Translation

Nota Bene