Wednesday, 29 April 2015

Like a non-object made of antimatter: Paulo Leminski’s ars poetica

I was going to write about Paulo Leminski's essays; you can find several online. My usual modus operandi here is to select bits from this and that essay, add my own commentary and try to give a coherent overview of the author’s ideas. But as I started pecking at the first essay – “In-utile art, free art?” I realized that there was more I wanted to include than leave out, so at one point I just said to myself, “Ah fuck it! I’ll just translate the whole text.” There’s no reason to explain Leminski when he can do it better than me in his own words. I’ve kept his idiosyncratic punctuation and neologisms intact.

In-utile art, free art?

The curious idea that art is not at the service of anything except itself is relatively recent. It dates from the 19th century European Romanticism, the apogee of the 1st Industrial Revolution and the bourgeois hegemony, the moment when the artist becomes a chronic unemployed.
Art and handicraft. Industry came to replace it.
Without social function but still full of its own importance, art between horrified and fascinated turns against the utilitarian world that surrounds it, denying it, criticizing it, like a non-object made of antimatter.
The bourgeois world is anti-artistic. Art doesn’t need it anymore. “Art for art’s sake” can finally be born.

Delight and Lesson

An art, a in-utile art: no idea could be stranger to the Catholic Middle Age, heir to Greco-Latin conceptions on the double role of art: “delectare,” “to please,” and “docere,” “to instruct.”
For a Medieval learned European (almost always a clergyman), it seemed the most logical thing in the world that artistic and literary activity, like the other activities, should be subordinated to an educational, edifying purpose, at the service of the salvation of the believers’ souls.
The literary work has moral duties. There is no place for a blasphemous, sacrilegious, iconoclastic, dissolving, corrupting work.
The work of art is the expression of a norm. Not a criminal gesture.
Like the men who produce it, it must fight against sin.
The limitless freedom of modern Western literature would seem to Medieval-agers like Satan’s triumph on earth. Modern literature’s sin, in fact, is the same as Lucifer’s, haughtiness, the pride of declaring itself autonomous, beyond good and evil.
 The Italian Renaissance, skeptical, critical, mundane, brought to life a new conception of art and literature, no longer subordinated to moral or pedagogical duties. An art turned solely to “delectare:” the concept of “Beauty” is born, the artistic goal, independent from didactic ends or ethical barriers.
The Catholic reaction in the Counter-Reformation, in its struggle with Protestantism, restored the ancient doctrine of art at the service of ideological or doctrinarian objectives. “Beauty” only has a reason to exist because it must make Truth carve itself more deeply in the hearts of men. And that Truth comes from outside: it preexists the work of art. Literature goes back to being just the vehicle of a given vision of life and the world.
Not that Protestantism was more liberal in terms of art and literature. On the contrary. Luther and Calvin were two typical Medieval minds. Certain Protestant currents went so far as to completely devalue every artistic activity as being a thing of Satan.
The utilitarian view of art and literature will prevail until the 18th century, including the Encyclopédistes. Voltaire’s vast literary oeuvre is at the service of the “Lights,” of the work of enlightening minds, ridiculing prejudice, demystifying superstition. Voltaire is not a poet, the way we understand the word nowadays, a problematic consciousness expressing his conflicts in words. He’s an educator, a pedagogue, who uses literature’s resources to illustrate certain “moral” principles.
With the French Revolution and the end of the Ancien Régime, the difficult equilibrium between the author and his audience, between the author and his Maecenas or protectors, is dissolved.
From now on, handed to the markets’ flukes, the writer is in the forest without a dog.

The French Way

The doctrine of “art for art’s sake” was first formulated, with all the letters, in 19th century France by Parnassian and Symbolist poets (Gautier, Leconte de Lisle, Baudelaire, Mallarmé). It was also the creed that inspired Flaubert’s desperate stylistic artisanship.
Its formulation was felt by artists as a true innovation, the freedom of art from any commitments with the non-artistic, moral, politics, patriotic exaltation, national tradition, Good, Truth.
In Romantic literature there was still an internal moral tension that, in France, had its great expression in the torrential poetic production of Victor Hugo, nowadays scarcely prized (we can’t understand the true deification to which Victor Hugo was subjected in life).
Significantly, the evolution of modern poetry at the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th derives directly from these practitioners of “art for art’s sake:” modern poetry would not exist without Baudelaire or Mallarmé.
That’s due mainly to the fact that those poets, released from moral or patriotic ballasts, could make poetry advance technically, language-wise, even to extreme limits, of which Mallarmé’s “Coup de dés” is the ultimate paradigm.
Descending from them, the 20th century’s most significant poetry is born from “art for art’s sake.” Of art as inutensil. Not as a vehicle of “higher” or “grander” principles.
For that reason a good portion of this century’s best poetry is poetry about poetry, critical poetry, poetry having poeticizing as its own object of inspiration. Metalanguage, as the technical jargon says. Even when it has a “moral motivation” behind it (which is inevitable, since man is a political, therefore moral, being).
The doctrine of art for art’s sake is a natural growth from the survival of art in a market-ruled society.
In the bourgeois world the work of art can only be two things: ornament and merchandise. A Renaissance fresco on a church wall is a complex ideological composite, pulsating with moral tensions and intentions of collective involvement. A painting by Manabu Mabe on a banker’s living room is only a complement to the mat and the sofas’ pattern. The bourgeois saluted modern art’s formal freedom, buying it. Transforming it into mere handicraft: any well-informed artist nowadays knows that art is finished. What keeps existing is handicraft (or industricraft).
Certain arts, painting, sculpture, lent themselves better to that transformation into ethically neutral merchandise, pursuer only of plastic and chromatic, technical and syntactic qualities.
Ornament and merchandise, the language of modern painting has lost all the subverting impact of the turn of the century vanguards (expressionism, fauvism, futurism, cubism, surrealism, geometric abstractionism, tachisme). When the bourgeois hears about modern art he pulls out his check book.
But one art resisted with particular vigour to this commercialization.
And that was literature, the art that has the word as its materia prima. Especially poetry, the place where the word achieves maximum, full, substantive sovereignty.
It’s no reason for surprise. Signally the arts are made with icons (colors, sounds, melodies, rhythms, body movements). Literature, poetry, is the only art made with symbols (the words the poet, an alchemist, tries to transform into icons).
Why, an icon, a color can be “a-moral” and “a-political.”
A word cannot.
For starters, a color is a universal value, independent of race, epoch or place. A word, any word belongs to a particular idiom, historically determined in space and time, the heaviest collective ballast man can carry. To speak Basque in Spain or Gaelic in Ireland is a gesture itself political (nations should coincide with the space of a language or dialect).
Each word has its history, its biography, its etymology.
Its usage deflagrates a constellation of sub-meanings and senses that, in each specific idiom, has a certain unique and non-transferable drawing.
The word is, in essence, political. Therefore ethical.
Thus perhaps the difficulty of transforming literature, poetry, into merchandise.
In fiction, commercially literature’s most prosperous branch, language is not true merchandise. It’s the plot, the setup, the story, you could say drawings, that is icons. Those things Brecht wanted in vain to sell, joining the ranks of Hollywood’s scriptwriters…
The pure value of the word is in poetry. So it’s always considered a difficult merchandise. “Poetry doesn’t sell” is one of the commandments of the indispensible Decalogue of any wise editor. Indeed it doesn’t sell. Poetry’s destiny is to be something else, behind or beyond merchandise and the market.
Wrong are those in thought and deed who complain about the publishing houses’ refusal to sell poetry. Instead they should be happy. Poetry after all is the last trench where art defends itself from the temptations of becoming ornament and merchandise, temptations to which other arts have pleasantly succumbed.
And it’s intriguing the fact that the doctrine of “art for art’s sake” was formulated precisely by poets. Not by painters, nor by novelists.
Transformed into merchandise, the work of art is transformed into nothing.
The thinkers of the “art for art’s sake” only recovered that curse. And gave it a positive sense.
Since then art has been in direct conflict with the world. The 20th century’s best art is a gesture against the world surrounding it. A negativity.

The Russian Way

“It sometimes happens that novelists, even when apparently fighting vice, present them with such colors that for that same reason they make the young to feel attracted to vices we should not speak of. Whatever the literary merit of these works may be, they can only be published if they take into account a truly moral end.”
“Mutatis mutandis,” the sentence could have been signed by any Soviet (or socialist) cultural authority nowadays. Just replace “moral” by “collective”, “socialist,” or “revolutionary.”
But the sentence belongs to count Razumovski, Russian minister of Public Instruction in 1814, justifying the prohibition of a novel that satirized the time’s aristocratic society.
As much from the government’s side as from the writers’, the extraordinary 19th century Russian literature (Gogol, Dostoevsky, Turgenev, Chekov) is an above all moral literature. And the social conscience of the Russian people, a literature of indictment and exposé, of resistance and collective responsibility.
Moral character: in that the powers and the opposition were in agreement. Only the signs were swapped. To the forceful and contrived moralizing of Czarist censorship, Russian writers reacted with an opposite moralizing.
The great meditative moment of that Russian affirmation of literature’s moral character is What is Art, by Tolstoy (1898).
In that remarkable essay the author of War and Peace denounces the “degeneration” of modern art, particularly the doctrine of “art for art’s sake” in light of ethical and “human” criteria. For Tolstoy all the art and literature of his time struck him as pathological manifestations of decadent and “inhuman” sensibilities. He’s repulsed by its “occultism,” its tendency for creating sects and closed “rackets.” In the rigor of his demands he expresses total repudiation of Balzac, Flaubert, Zola and the Goncourt brothers, while he exalted the fiction of Dickens, Victor Hugo and Dumas Père… on the poets, Baudelaire, Mallarmé, his judgments are even more severe.
This Russian literature’s ethical character comes from the 19th century and remains almost intact in Soviet literature: the Revolution only inherited the Czarism and the artistic utilitarianism. In that sense the literature of the Russian people presents a rare unity of meaning.
From Razumovski to Tolstoy we arrived at Plekhanov, the introducer of Marxism in Russia: the same “utilitarian,” moral, anti-art-for-art’s-sake posture. His Art and Social Life, a 1912 conference, repeats with Marxist and proletarianizing notes, Tolstoy’s arguments.
In that conference, whose brilliance can’t be denied, Plekhanov drives the judgment against “art for art’s sake” according to his class conditions.
What in Tolstoy was moral, in Plekhanov is political.
Details aside, this vision of art and literature would continue throughout the whole Soviet era, well into Stalinism.
It’s important to remark how that Russian vision of art impregnated the aesthetics and poetics of socialism in general. A Marxist ideological position on the world seems inextricable from a useful and utilitarian view of art, in the antipodes of “art for art’s sake.”

Adorno: the left’s “art for art’s sake”

Fortunately the Marxist art view did not stop in the moralist Manichaeism of Plekhanov, producing with Adorno (Theodor W. Adorno) a sort of dialectical synthesis between the inutensil of “art for art’s sake” and the ethical and political compromise of living revolutionary a given historical circumstance.
The exponent of the Frankfurt School, Adorno is already a contemporary of Walter Benjamin and Brecht. His theoretical reflection addresses capitalism in a far more advanced phase than Plekhanov’s. Compared with Plekhanov, Adorno reflects in a) a far more sophisticated intellectual milieu and b) a non-revolutionary circumstance.
For Adorno the greatness of art is in its capacity to resist the status of merchandise, in positioning itself in the world as an “unidentified object.” In its refusal to assume the universal form of merchandise, art, the work of art is the manifestation in its purest and most radical moments of a “negativity.” It is the “antithesis of society.” The social antithesis of society.
For Adorno, a critic and sharp reader of capitalism’s contradictions, art only has a reason of being as negation of the rarefied world of merchandise. It’s the same as saying while inutensil.
The ethical tension of the work is in this refusal to turn into merchandise.
Mysteriously, the defenders of “art for art’s sake” were right.

Orginally published in 1986 in the newspaper Folha de S. Paulo and Included in the book Anseios Crípticos.

Saturday, 25 April 2015

Paulo Leminski is a mad dog: poetry from Brazil

My current obsession concerns a Brazilian poet called Paulo Leminski. Virtually unknown in Portugal, I accidentally discovered him weeks ago and have engaged in unsuccessful attempts at acquiring at least one book by him. In the meantime I have the internet to educate me on this cult writer.

Details, until I get hold of his biography, remain diffuse: of Polish descent, in 1944 Paulo Leminski was born in Curitiba, also hometown of fictionist Dalton Trevisan (whom he admired more than I do.) In 1958, he entered a monastery and lived there for a year. We catch up with him again in 1963, when he attended the I Brazilian Congress on Vanguard Poetry: there he met Haroldo de Campos, an important poet, who became his friend and mentor. The same year he married Neiva Maria de Souza, a plastic artist; they split in 1968 and he married poet Alice Ruiz, who stayed with him until his death; for some time he and Ruiz lived in a hippie commune with Leminski’s ex-wife and her new boyfriend.

In 1964, Leminski published poems in Invenção, a magazine created by the founders of concrete poetry: Décio Pignatari, Haroldo and his brother, Augusto. He won a poetry prize in 1968 and continued to publish in magazines for almost a decade; his first collection of poetry didn’t come out until 1976. In 1975 he published an experimental novel called Catatau (which is what attracted me to him): eight years in the making, known inside a circle of friends, expectations were high; when it came out it was a small revolution. The plot, as far as I can tell, tells the fictional journey of Rene Descartes, aboard John Maurice of Nassau’s armada, to Brazil during the Dutch-Portuguese War, his getting lost and going crazy in the vast, anti-rational jungles of the New World. But that’s just the surface; from the online excerpts I’ve read what really matters is the word puns, the relationship between sounds, the invention of portmanteau words and other verbal resources he employs. A polyglot, Leminski spoke French, English, Spanish, Greek, Latin and Japanese, all of which he put in the novel, plus Tupi. James Joyce’s influence is often recognized, as is Haroldo’s Galáxias (an experimental book, a synthesis of poetry and prose without commas and punctuation, that he wrote between 1963 and 1976 but only published in 1984; however the work in progress circulated widely amongst other writers). It’s worth mentioning that Augusto de Campos translated Finnegans Wake to Portuguese.

Leminski worked as a History teacher, as a Judo teacher (he was a black belt), in advertising, wrote for magazines and newspapers, and composed lyrics for popular songs. He also translated James Joyce, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, John Fante, John Lennon, Yukio Mishima, Alfred Jarry, Petronius, and Samuel Beckett. He even translated ancient Egyptian poetry. On top of that he wrote four biographies on: Jesus Christ, Leon Trotsky, the 17th century Japanese poet Matsuo Bashō, and the Brazilian poet João da Cruz e Sousa.

He passed away in 1989. Being a poet, it goes without saying that the cause was cirrhosis of the liver. He has been subjected to a biography called Paulo Leminski: O bandido que sabia latim, which literally means Paulo Leminsky: The bandit who spoke Latin. I hope to read it one day.

Although no one knows Leminski in Portugal, he has had tremendous influence on contemporary Brazilian poetry. His poetry favoured word puns and the haiku, abhorred conventional punctuation and capital letters and tended to exude humour. He has shown up in some English-language Brazilian poetry anthologies, but I fear the challenges of translating his prose will always hold him back.

Leminski was a believer in experimentation and art for art’s sake, art as its own reason to be; and he manipulated words using the full resources of the Portuguese language, relishing in its particularities, eschewing what Breton called the “purely informative style”. Take a simple example:

vão é tudo
que não for prazer
repartido prazer
entre parceiros

todas as coisas que vão

A literal translation would be:

vain is everything
that isn’t pleasure
pleasure partaken
between partners

all things that go.

Now the poem’s fun is the fact that vão, which is the first and last word, has two meanings: in the first position it’s an adjective, in the last it’s the conjugation of the verb to go (ir). The joke comes from pointing out the semantic unity between both words: everything is in vain because everything goes, that is, disappears, what matters is enjoying life while it lasts, the now.

Then there’s a poem called “enchantagem,” which – I presume, but what do I know? –  is a pun on the English word enchant and the Portuguese word chantagem (blackmail). How do you capture that in translation?

You also have a poem that is all about sounds (but what poem isn’t?):

                        da tua prece

tua pressa
só teu pulso

você padece
                        te resta

            um belo dia

Which I may clumsily turn into:

                        your prayer

your hurry
just your pulse
                                   speed up

you wither
                        what’s left to you

                        one fine day

Most of the poem is about tonic syllable stresses, rhymes and words resounding into other words: Deus and indu, algum and ogum, indu and Vishnu. Then we have running sounds like the p in prece/pressa/pulso, or the sibilants in precisa/pessoa/padecer. Then prece echoes tenuously at padece and at the end with desaparece. For all its apparent anarchy across the page, it’s tightly weaved. And although it doesn’t look like much on the page, or even when read, it’s when it’s spoken out loud that it sounds so wonderful, that’s when you marvel at the quick rhythm of its short words; most have one or two syllables. The poem is about the rhythm of where the stress falls on the word: Deus, algum, indu, ogum, Vishnu, precisa, da tua prece, pessoa, , teu, pulso, acelera, vo, padece, padecer, te, resta, tudo, um, belo, dia, desaparece. We have an almost constant structure where a tonic syllable is followed by a toneless syllable, maintaining a steady rhythm from beginning to end. Don’t forget that where in some places it seems like two toneless syllables go together – pul(so, a)celera, or tu(do, um) – actually what we have here is what is known as a crasis, that is, a blending of two syllables into one. I just mention all this to show the difficulty of effectively translating Leminski into English.

Others are more straightforward, and I don’t think I’ve emphasized Leminski’s humour and irreverence yet:

um dia desses quero ser
um grande poeta inglês
do século passado
e dizer
ó céu ó mar ó clã ó destino
lutar na índia em 1866
e sumir num naufrágio clandestino

one of these days I want to be
a great English poet
from the previous century
and say
O sky o sea o clan o fate
Fight in India in 1866
And disappear in a clandestine shipwreck


entre a dívida externa
e a dúvida interna
meu coração

between the external debt
and the internal doubt
my commercial

Or even:

o pauloleminski
é um cachorro louco
que deve ser morto
a pau a pedra
a fogo a pique
senão é bem capaz
o filhodaputa
de fazer chover
em nosso piquenique

is a mad dog
who must be
clubbed and stoned
burnt and stabbed to death
or that sonofabitch
may just
on our picnic

And what about his prophetic powers?

moinho de versos
movido a vento
em noites de boemia

vai vir o dia
quando tudo que eu diga
seja poesia

verse windmill
on bohemian nights

the day will come
when everything I say
will be poetry

Who can say if that day hasn’t come already?

And then there’s stuff like this:

anti-Euclidean backlands

no book
had on learned Brazilian culture
the impact of the os sertões

with it
euclides da cunha
army man
like all republican officers
a positivist
a literature made by graduates
"society's smile"
second empire salon glow
reading for masters and misses
a surge of thorns in the beardless face
of Law students
idleness for retirees
domestic gift
by the elite of an illiterate country
with him
another brazil
a new brazil
the real hinterland brazil
jumped in the face of learned elites
gathered in the cities
in the rio-são paulo axis
producing a french literature in the tropics
for white men to see

canudos was a revelation
the awakening of the brazilian mind
the national satori
a historic event of many
of which the most important
a book called os sertões

from it descend
all our regionalist prose
even the maxium sertão
where the genius of guimarães rosa
gives the sertão a cosmic dimension
in a text as rich as Joyce's
closing with a golden key
brazilian literature's most fertile cycle

the text os sertões
has a history
an essential biography
for the book's comprehension

it was born from the annotations
of the military engineer euclides da cunha
war correspondent for o estado de são paulo
right on the spot of the military operations
jagunços and fanatics of antônio
against the republic's troops

from the annotations to reportage
and from these to the final text os sertões
a long textual journey
where euclides bet everything he had
scientific preparation
verbal skill
and mastery of the stylistic resources
of the language

the twisted
the tortuous
euclides' positivist baroque
liana style
is prose in drama
isomorphic with the drama it presentifies
speech deformed and informed by the topic

the impact canudos provoked on euclides
was not just historical
it was also semiotic/poetic
of language
in canudos
euclides discovered the sertão's natural talk
the popular language
a language
full of its own movements
sayings and expressions by jagunços
quite far from the capital's sermio nobilis

this impact
escape euclides' exegetes

the revelation of the sertões' language
is documented
in Euclide's field notebook
a pocket book recently published
by cultrix
birthplace of os sertões
where euclides joted down geography
military operations
war episodes and incidents

many pages from the notebook
are riddled with lists of words and
expressions that Euclides
heard in the carelessness
of the people
living poetry/language
exploding in his civilized eardrums

some of those expressions
true fossils
archaic words and sayings
kept in the sertão's isolation
a trip to the language's past

euclides joted down in the notebook
popular poems
like the abc of incredulity
war literature
by an anonymous man
where the rawness of the ideas and expressions
is expressed in barbarian orthography

the orthographic code
constitutes the first protective layer
of the dominant language
its first line of defenses
china wall against the invasion of
the popular
the poetic
the new

faced by social
linguistic torthographic
made a psychoanalytical trip to Brazil’s
and gives
a name to our malaise

it's called alienation

no brazilian paideuma
(selection from a cast of vital authors)
that leaves os sertões out
can consider itself complete
with it
the euclidean (mathematically speaking)
discovers the reverse

and discovers us.

Now this is a great book blurb! If they put this poem on the back of the Penguin edition of Backlands: The Canudos Campaign, copies would fly off the shelves. Maybe not, but at least it’d have Leminski’s poem on the back, and that’s not a bad thing.

Whenever I have the time, stuff from his essays.