Wednesday, September 01, 2004

Projecting our narcissism onto cows

According to Pablo Neruda, regarding the Argentinian writer Omar Vignole:

He used to walk all over Buenos Aires with his cow, leading her by a rope. Around that time, he published some books, all with intriguing titles: What the Cow Thinks, My Cow and I, etc. When the P.E. N. club had its first world congress in Buenas Aires, the writers, who were headed by Victoria Ocampo, trembled at the thought that Vignole would turn up with his cow. They explained this imminent threat to the authorities, and the police cordoned off the streets around the Plaza Hotel to prevent my eccentric friend from showing up with his ruminant at the luxurious place where the congress was being held. It was all in vain. The festivities were in full swing and the writers were discussing the classical world of the Greeks and its relation to the modern meaning of history, when the great Vignole burst in upon the conference hall with his inseparable cow, which, to top things off, started to moo as if she wanted to join the debate. He had brought her into the heart of the city in an enormous closed van that had somehow eluded the vigilance of the police.
--Memoires, 43

Neruda goes on (forgive the lenghty quotes. I haven't learned how to italicize or indent yet either...):

Something else I want to tell about this same Vignole is that he once challenged a wrestler. The pro called his bluff, and on the night of the match my friend showed up at a packed Luna Park right on time with his cow, hitched her to a corner of the ring, shed his super-elegant robe, and faced the Calcutta Strangler.
Well, neither the cow nor the wrestling poet's gorgeous apparel could help him here. The Calcutta Strangler pounced on Vignole and tied him into a helpless know in double-quick time. What's more, adding insult to injury, he placed one foot on the literary bull's throat, amid tremendous whistles and catcalls from an audience that demanded that the fight continue.
A few months later Vignole brought out a new book: Conversations with the Cow. I'll never forget the unique dedication that appeared on the first page. If memory serves me, it read: "I dedicate this philosophical work to the forty thousand sons of bitches who hissed and called for my blood in Luna Park on the night of February 24."

--Neruda, Memoires, 43

One often gets the impression reading Neruda that he is repeating and embellishing other stories...
On another note, Neruda writes of his friend, Alberto Rojas Giménez:

Being generous to a fault, he attracted so much attention that one day, ina café, a stranger came up to him and said, "Sir, I have been listening to you talk and I have taken a great liking to you. May I ask you for something? "What is it?" Rojas Giménez asked, looking put out. "Let me leap over you," the stranger said. "What?" the poet asked. "Are you so powerful that you can leap over me hear, sitting at this table?" "No, sir," the stranger said meekly. "I want to leap over you later, when you are resting in your coffin. It's my way of paying tribute to the interesting people I've met in my life: leaping over them, if they let me, after they're dead. I'm a lonely man, and this is my only hobby." And taking out his notebook, he said, "Here's my list of people I've leaped over." Wild with joy, Rojas Giménez accepted the strange proposition. Several years later [...]friends present at his wake that night had an unusual visitor. A torrential rain was falling on the rooftops, with lightning and the wind together illuminating and shaking the huge plantain trees on Quinta Normal, when the door opened and a man all in black, drenched by the rain, walked in. No one knew who he was. Before the curious eyes of the friends keeping vigil, the stranger braced himself and leaped over the coffin. And he left immediately, as suddenly as he had arrived, without uttering a word, vanishing into the night and the rain. And so Alberto Rojas Giménez's amazing life was sealed with a mysterious rite nobody has yet been able to puzzle out.

--Neruda, Memoires, 39-40

Neruda is a neat and tidy storyteller, leaping with grace from punch line to solemn decree, guiding the reader with that pervasive modesty and nostalgia so invocative of another time, another patience, a lost art. But then, there are some good reasons why it has been "lost." Although still endearing, such patient, simple formulas -- and especially their haunting morals -- are decidely outmoded, which doesn't necessarily mean they cannot still be heard, or begun to be heard for the first time even. I am thinking of the Russian Formalists and their insistenc that literature is never passed on directly, from generation to generation. Rather it skips one, going from grandfather to grandson, or in a "Knight's move" from uncle to nephew. Such distance is required for literature to be heard -- for receptiveness to begin.
To say Neruda's romantics are outmoded is not to subscribe to the "dumbing down" of discourse, however -- that which followed in the wake of the Beats, say (hippies being intolerably dumb). Neruda's anecdotes are beautifully economic, full of eccentric characters, passionate and --for lack of a better word -- compassionate.
But what vanity and improvisation and gloss is storytelling. What self-congratulatory delight in those who pull it off (there is always a deception at every story's heart -- one that originates with the speaking self). Story tellers rely on an arsenal of baggage; they are moral, immoral, modest, wicked, ironic, superior. Ungraspable. Their faith in some 'loophole' or 'superaddressee' being such an alluring enigma, such presence and yet indifference (why don't you acknowledge that your style, your buffer and umbrella, is a madness? becuase to do so would be even more mad?) Such vague promises, yearning to be yet to be defined. Such silent sacrifice. Loopholes remaining beautifully unfinished.