Eugenio Montejo and the Poetics of the Essay
Since its beginnings, the essay has been characterized by its emphatic conversion of subjectivity into an issue of concern. Michel de Montaigne’s “To the Reader” was clear, if defiant, on the subject:
Reader, thou hast here an honest book; it doth at the outset forewarn thee that, in contriving the same, I have proposed to myself no other than a domestic and private end [...]. If I had lived among those nations, which (they say) yet dwell under the sweet liberty of nature’s primitive laws, I assure thee I would most willingly have painted myself quite fully and quite naked. Thus, reader, myself am the matter of my book.
Transplanted to Spanish America, the genre has not always preserved the conversational intimacy of its genesis. In fact, David Lagmanovich, one of its most perspicacious scholars, indicated that over the course of the nineteenth century, and residually in the twentieth, Montaignian subjectivity gave way to an “essay of us” in which writing is presented as a testament of collective wills in which the writer acts as interpreter: think of “Our America” by José Martí or “Our Indians” by Manuel González Prada. The plural remits to a community that meditates on immediate, continental, or national political anguishes through the intellectual-spokesman. The essayist of the New World, we might add, has adapted to postcolonial circumstances unknown at the time of the Essais.
In twentieth-century Venezuela, this “essay of us” kept up its strength until the start of the sixties, coinciding with the consecration of figures like Mariano Picón Salas, Arturo Uslar Pietri, and Luis Beltrán Guerrero, for whom homeland and history were indispensable principles. Along with collectivity, these essayists of the land tended to extol humanism. Not only was their worldview anthropocentric; their rhetoric was too. A glance at a few titles is enough to realize this: Hora y Deshora: Temas humanísticos [Time and wrong time: humanistic themes] (1963) by Picón Salas, Valores humanos [Human values] (1953) by Uslar Pietri, and Variaciones sobre el humanismo [Variations on humanism] (1952) by Beltrán Guerrero serve as apt examples. In his “Interpretación del Bello humanista” [Interpretation of Andrés Bello, the humanist], the latter summarizes the prototype of the “man-people” who will be “father, master, guide” and will have Catholicism, proselytism, and Romanity as “mother ideas,” which implies, as he tells us, “universality,” “selection,” and “hierarchy.” The related condition of these “mother ideas” and the grands récits spoken of by Jean-François Lyotard is indisputable. It is easy to perceive an ontological centralization that unites theo- and anthropocentrism, patriarchy and nationalism. Picón Salas, Uslar Pietri, and Beltrán Guerrero, according to Lagmanovich’s continental periodization, should have coincided with what he calls “vanguardism-existentialism,” but if we consider that this period includes essayists such as Borges, Paz, Murena, and Cabrera Infante, deconstructors of conservative superstitions, the Venezuelan essay of the first half of the twentieth century would be forced to assimilate into what was taking place earlier in other parts of the Hispanic world, as if the Venezuelan nineteenth century had been immoderately extended.
When Eugenio Montejo (Caracas, 1938 - Valencia, Venezuela, 2008) began to cultivate the genre, important ruptures with such archaizing patterns were taking place. Nearing the sixties, the most visible of these ruptures was the fact that national avatars were no longer the obsessive axis of every act of reflection. There were equally drastic shifts in worldview. At the time, as Óscar Rodríguez Ortiz has observed, it became common to problematize “man’s place in the navel of the world.” Fatherland, God, history, and humanism do not form the entire backbone of this discourse, although they persist at times in the work of certain authors. Montejo, in El taller blanco [The white workshop] (1983), takes this fruitful uprooting into account: “we know we have arrived not only after the gods, as has been repeated, but also after the cities.” Read “city” as the concretion of social space and you can glimpse the distance between the omnipotent nationalism of the telluric writers and this pursuit of the lost world of language. “Poesía en un tiempo sin poesía” [Poetry in a time without poetry], Montejo titled his brief piece: in his pages he puts forth the lyric—not the homeland or religion—as the instrument to relay the foundations of existence.
The beginnings of a post-tellurist poetics are not only verified in the aforementioned volume; they also appear in La ventana oblicua [The oblique window] (1974) and in El cuaderno de Blas Coll [The notebook of Blas Coll] (various extended editions between 1981 and 2007). In this trilogy, compiling Montejo’s most accomplished essayism, we must highlight, above all, a rediscovery of the Montaignian tactics of creation. It is not the case that the essay of the land ignored Montaigne: Picón Salas and Uslar Pietri cite him. In spite of this, their references tend to emphasize moral messages: the French author instructs us. If, in tellurism, the first person singular repudiates or annexes itself to an all-embracing plural entity, the later basic speaker is represented alone with his obsessions; when he refers to the “we,” he does so to delineate an alliance of writers or readers more than a disproportionate Venezuelan or American being. What is debated is as much shared knowledge as the trajectory of ideas within the individual. He attempts, consequently, a synthesis less demagogic than the dichotomy between extrospection and introspection. In La ventana oblicua, the enunciative evolution manifested from the introductory text to the conclusions is eloquent. In the introduction, the literary “we” is dominant and the locutor as well as the interlocutor are conceived of as readers or critics with a common contemporary vantage point from which to re-examine the literary past―this happens, for example, when he speaks of Novalis and “our” necessary return to his pages. This way of capturing subjectivity, close to the scientific near absence of the thoughtful subject, will gradually disappear: in “Tornillos viejos en la máquina del poema” [Old screws in the poem machine], the “we” oscillates between impersonality and his biographization as a contemporary poet. The distance between object and subject will immediately be erased: in “La fortaleza fulminada” [The stricken-down fortress], the author whose texts are being analyzed, César Dávila Andrade, is called simply “César,” and the essayist ends up admitting to be his personal friend. In the book’s final two essays, the speaker’s status as protagonist is evident; he even communicates his most fantastic “fears” in a ludic homage to Kafka—“Los terrores de caer en K” [The terrors of falling into K]—and, shortly after, in “Un recuerdo de Jean Cassou” [A memory of Jean Cassou], memories of past journeys:
In a notebook I’ve since lost, I wrote that Paris is the city where the earth turns slowest. It is there in that angle that my memory superimposes some stroke of Vermeer, where I have lived that impression. I hear the Seine flow milky from each one of these voices. Its pauses and its curves, its slowness, bounce there from one mouth to another as if under the arches of the bridges. Slow like a meditation, like a whisper of eternal water.
The essay, imbued with intimacy, modulates precisely to poetry, in a movement not dissimilar from those displayed by Montaigne on many occasions.
These movements toward the poetic or the emotive might be seen as capricious, but the consciousness of the essay’s form we find in Montejo points to something different. Already in the introduction to La ventana oblicua he had warned us of “asystematism” and the lack of “erudite boundaries” arrayed against the “byzantinism” of professional scholarship. It would be fitting to ask, at this point, about the function of the central image of the “window.” In reality, this subject has been present in the Venezuelan essayistic tradition since it was used in the famous Camino de perfección [Path of perfection] (1910) by Manuel Díaz Rodríguez:
There are men who have but a single window in their spirit [I do not envy them]. Rather than living slovenly in an already conquered kingdom, I prefer to conquer my kingdom [...]. And so, over the spirits of a single window, I prefer those that are like a house of many stories that, on each floor, has windows open to the four winds, or even better―because a house can be obstructed by the neighboring houses―like a lordly castle in the middle of a vast meadow, and with balconies on each floor that dominate the four cardinal points.
Díaz Rodríguez, the eldest of the Venezuelan modernists, had turned to this analogy to formulate, against the frozen rigidities of positivism―against its closed mind―an individual opening to ideas, an acceptance of indeterminacy and flexibility. Such ideas converge with Montejo’s, as “the solitude of the observed,” “perspectivistic” fatality, and what is understood “limitedly,” according to him, make up our obliqueness, our impossibility of attaining a straightforward, objective vision. An “impossibility,” but also a gift: we must remember with Ernst Robert Curtius, as in La ventana oblicua, that “all criticism is [at bottom] irrational” and that, often, its reasoning is “sentimental.” Science disappears for the essayist as an imperative. The author and the work must be read as a set, in “fraternal communion”: is that communion not what is proven between the analytic subject and the analyzed object over the course of these essays? The study of the individual as a contributing force to writing is presented in parallel to the individuation of the speaker. The foundation of both practices is the banishment of the excesses of impersonality and objectivity: this is confirmed, in Montejo’s meditations on the I Ching, by the enthralled siege of the Jungian notion of “synchronicity” as a subversion of the “western, scientific-causal way of considering the world,” or in his observations, on another occasion, of the “vitality” of Carlos Drummond de Andrade: “upon inquiring into the technique of his language, we find the man who sustains it and vice versa.”
El taller blanco will further develop this mode of thought. In the volume’s titular essay, faith in the individual is complemented by solitude as the only source of true creation, at least from the viewpoint of the “I” who, to be coherent with its vitalism, is characterized autobiographically: the thoughtful voice knows poetry from the inside. The negation of rationalism is taken to the extreme in this collection, and “Fragmentario” [Fragmentary] is, in this sense, a key text, highlighting the urgencies of man at the end of the millenium. Our conduct—as writers and as human beings—cannot ignore the need to “learn to feel”; before becoming good intellectuals, we must become good men, since “the rest will follow from this clearly”; intellectual art is “masculine” and if it is separated from “music” and the “feminine,” it leads to “mental virtuosity,” that is, the “cliché”—Montejian vocabulary here connects again to the psychology of C.G. Jung, although he goes unmentioned here. He maintains, further, that “Feeling is fertile because only feeling deeply illuminates us. Ingenuity distracts, aggravates, refines: it reaches the brain, but not the soul.” Content-form, masculine-feminine, ingenuity-feeling: a balance of supposed opposites. Why has he chosen the fragment as the way to present these convictions? Discursive discontinuity prevents a limpid rationalization of his propositions, an ordered concatenation of causes and effects, theses and proofs―remember Montaigne, whose judgment went “groping, staggering, and stumbling at every rush.”
It is not arbitrary that El cuaderno de Blas Coll is made up of fragments. Among the heteronyms created by Montejo, Coll takes on the roll of teacher; the life and labors of his “colígrafos” are organized around him. If these figures are poets, this is expressed through reflexive prose with hints of lyricism, like that of the essays mentioned here and written under his own name. El cuaderno constitutes, effectively, an essay, although it is attributed to a semi-character, which should not surprise anyone who has passed through the pages of the Essays of Elia (1823) of Charles Lamb, the Also sprach Zarathustra (1883) of Friedrich Nietzsche, or the Ariel (1900) of José Enrique Rodó, among many other examples that could be added to the list. It is worth noting that in the cited Camino de perfección by Díaz Rodríguez, the writer also makes use of a semi-character, Don Perfecto, if only to incarnate the academicism and positivism satirized by the essayist. Coll, the copyist of Puerto Malo―as he says in the preface, Montejo is the “editor” of his fragments―was perhaps a Canary Islander who had come to America, known for his strange behavior and his eccentric theses on the Spanish language and on language in general. Said ideas, enigmatic, absurd, captivating in their efforts to diminish the familiarity of our relationship with signs, make up the published corpus. El cuaderno is “oblique” writing―like the writing described by Montejo in his book of essays in 1974 just as in 1983―whose ancestor we might find in equal measure in the heteronyms of Fernando Pessoa or in the Juan de Mairena of Antonio Machado. The essayist-editor’s responsibility with respect of the copyist’s ideas is ambiguous, but it exists, and it can be noted in the joyfully ludicrous gaze that Coll projects over the matter of linguistics. The copyist does not only abstain from being a scientist, he also opts to become an anti-scientist in precepts like “Bilingualism leads consciously or unconsciously to atheism,” “Every phrase must reproduce in its construction, as much as is possible, the way the stars known to us gravitate. The subject must rotate like the sun,” or “Hell should be named by a proparoxytone. As far as paradise, for it to be so, it requires a monosyllable.” We see how his posture is, more than intellective, one of insatiable and humorous intuition. We must not take Coll seriously because if we did we would have to deal with his creator, Eugenio Montejo: it matters little if what is upheld by the essayistic voice is linguistically incorrect; what matters is his passion for words and his capacity for expression. On his affective attachment rests an image of the universe.
Irrationality, all in all, has its precipices: madness as Coll’s poetic and tragic fate is a consequence of his exaggerated rejection of reason, as well as a warning of the limits that man must not cross. Montejo is plainly responsible for this dementia or this warning; we must not disregard what he suggests in “Fragmentario” from El taller blanco: the equilibrium of opposites is something precious. If “the other” is constellated in Coll, the moment must arrive for him to be “the same.” For this reason, he says in the editor’s prologue, “perhaps El cuaderno de Blas Coll constitutes an illusory attempt at an ars poetica. But I would not dare to deny his existence, just as I would not dare to categorically affirm my own. He is, to say the least, a welcome lightning bolt at the entry to my cavern.” Coll constitutes a subtle fable of the necessary search for the coming-together of opposites, the balance that places us at ethical thresholds.
The fact that Montejo’s aesthetic took shape in the seventies and eighties―when he was already the central poet in his country’s canon―is significant. Not only because his lyrical work, which is fueled by myth, nature, and memory, seems to contradict the “Saudi” Venezuela in which the author was formed, but also because his essayism adds to this the meticulous formulation of a conception of subjectivity that denies the idolatry of the modern. The Venezuela of that period put forth an image of triumphalist progressivism empowered by the financial affluence of the oil industry and addiction to the vertiginous growth of urban lifestyles. While all of this was translated into an almost “magical” political optimism―I do not allude in vain to Fernando Coronil’s thesis in The Magical State: Nature, Money, and Modernity in Venezuela―Montejo’s verse collections, like Élegos [Elegies] (1967), Muerte y memoria [Death and memory] (1972), Algunas palabras [A few words] (1977), Terredad [Earthness] (1978), and Trópico absoluto [Absolute tropic] (1982), painted a picture, instead, of a world in which nostalgia fills the space of the old disappeared cities; a world in which the speaker, as well as a nature not governed by linear time, evokes hidden gods, the melancholy presence of the dead, and foundational legends like that of Manoa, the golden city the conquistadores never found. We find ourselves before what Raymond Williams called “the residual”: a past that is employed combatively. If this portrait were not enough to discern the opposing will in the Montejian project, we should keep in mind his particular rebellion against the modern Cartesian subject: that is, a split conception of identity in which, in patriarchal terms, the intellect prevails over emotion, the spirit over the body, the masculine over the feminine, culture over nature. Montejo’s lyrical voice rejects dualists schemas with an intersubjectivity in which rivalries and hierarchies dissolve into frank communions. And something similar could be said of his essayistic voice, as we have seen here, yielding to memory, skilled in the intimate and the minor, and, above all, declaiming excisions to the bitter end. The confusion of the “I” and the “other” in his heteronymic games crowns this effort.
The conception of Montejo’s vision of the universe as “minor,” in the sense mentioned by Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, is confirmed by the precedence of affect over any other point of reference: remember that, in the Manicheisms of the patriarchy, with its implied Cartesianism, feelings tend to be grouped in with the condemned and defeated—nature, the irrational, the body, the “feminine.” The aforementioned essay “Fragmentario” suggests that the redemption of the affective does not happen by chance:
To not feel the world, to not feel life in its multiple mystery and in the simplicity with which it is manifested implies in truth a grave mutilation [...]. To learn to feel: this sole attempt [...] would better form the young poet than the learning pursued through literary knowledge.
This is corroborated by the political tenor of this writing. There are few authors, in fact, so opposed to the “waning of affect” highlighted by Fredric Jameson in the “postmodern” art of late capitalism. The enunciation in Montejian texts that places the “I” in a position of equality, of loving closeness to other beings, nonetheless prevents a resurrection of what Jameson would call the “monadic bourgeois ego.” This intelligent option, in a veiled critique of a now “global” ethos, avoids becoming reactionary just as it avoids the temptation of following fads and the literary market.
Translated by Arthur Dixon
Miguel Gomes (1964) is the author of, among others, the works of fiction Visión memorable (Fundarte, 1987); De fantasmas y destierros (Eafit, 2003); Viviana y otras historias del cuerpo (Random House Mondadori, 2006); El hijo y la zorra (Random House Mondadori, 2010); Julieta en su castillo (Artesano, 2012); and Retrato de un caballero (Seix Barral, 2015). He has been the recipient of the Caracas Municipal Prize for Literature and has twice won the yearly short story prize awarded by the Venezuelan newspaper El Nacional. As a critic he has written extensively about the essay in Latin American and about various poets and fiction writers. Since 1989, he lives in the USA, and currently is Board of Trustees Distinguished Professor at the University of Connecticut.
Arthur Malcolm Dixon is co-founder, lead translator, and Managing Editor of Latin American Literature Today. He has translated the novels Immigration: The Contest by Carlos Gámez Pérez and There Are Not So Many Stars by Isaí Moreno (Katakana Editores), as well as the verse collection Intensive Care by Arturo Gutiérrez Plaza (Alliteratïon). He also works as a community interpreter in Tulsa, Oklahoma and is a 2020-2021 Tulsa Artist Fellow.
The seventh issue of Latin American Literature Today highlights indigenous voices with dossiers dedicated to three Wayuu writers from Colombia and Zapotec poetry and prose. We also pay homage to renowned Venezuelan poet Eugenio Montejo with a special dossier, as well as returning to the strange worlds of Latin American science fiction and opening a new space for Brazilian literature in Portuguese and English.