Thursday, February 10, 2011

GRADITUDE: Miguel de Unamuno and Elizabeth Bishop


At one time, even within my lifetime, all thoughtful persons would have read before they had turned twenty-one, Miguel de Unamuno’s THE TRAGIC SENSE OF LIFE.

And once read it could be said , THE TRAGIC SENSE OF LIFE set me on a course.

Homo sum nihil humani a me alienum puto, said the Latin playwright. For my part I would rather say: Nullum hominem a me alienum puto: I am a man; no other man I deem a stranger. For in my eyes the adjective humanus is no less suspect than its abstract substantive humanitas, humanity. I would choose neither “the human” nor “humanity,” neither the simple adjective nor the substantive adjective, but the concrete substantive: man, the man of flesh and blood, the man who is born, suffers and dies---above all, who does; the man who eats and drinks ad plays and sleeps and thinks and loves; the man who is seen and heard; one’s brother, the real brother.

As long as one held tightly to this paragraph one was preserved from the murderous illusions of Marxism, fascism and all the other isms that seek to replace a man in the centrality of his nervous system with fascinating plans for the future.

The University of Illinois Press has published in translation an unpublished early work of de Unamuno’s TREATISE ON LOVE OF GOD. Never really finished it prefigures what is to come in his great work and as such is of interest as are the wonderful novels and fictions which can be found in Bollingen Series years ago published by Princeton University Press: novels as innovative as the novels of Joyce Rios, or Schmidt.

The TREATISE is provocative In the best sense of that over-used word:
---Every cultured European of our days is Christian, willingly or not, knowingly or not. Among us one is born Christian and breathes Christianity, and this applies no less to those who most abominate it. The paganism of those that want to oppose Christ is a paganism that would scandalize a pre-Christian pagan, of resurrected and able t see it.

---The originality, the deep truth of Christianity has been to make God a human being, the Human Being, that suffers passion and dies. Such is the madness and the scandal of the Cross (I Corinthians I: 23)

I doubt you will be seeing this book reviewed in the New York Times.


Farrar Straus & Giroux have with the publication of two books this season done something that rarely happens in the world of publishing: they have demonstrated loyality, keeping faith, being true.

Both of these books are handsome, beautiful in their plainness: the brightness of the yellow cover of PROSE and the deep blue of POEMS both by Elizabeth Bishop. The poetry is well known and through the years FSG kept faith with Elizabeth Bishop. They kept all her books in print and collected them as needed. She herself avoided the feminist or women’s ghetto by refusing to allow her poetry to appear in anthologies restricted by gender, knowing that such a restriction is always demeaning even if good for the mediocre who huddle together on the basis of gender race or ethnicity in their pursuit of lifetime sinecures in those concentration camps of the intellect: our universities and colleges.

And while I respect Bishop, I personally find myself going with more excitement to the collected poems of Lorine Niedecker whose fate, life and career demonstrate the opposite of Bishop’s. And while finally a Collected Works of Niedecker is available from the University of California Press for most of her life her work appeared from small presses in small editions and they were only sporadically available. Here this woman, washing floors in a hospital in Wisconsin, while writing poetry that can be easily compared to Paul Celan and at the same time conducting correspondences with Louis Zukofsky and Ezra Pound, a woman who had to work for a living in isolation save for a few supporters... with no sinecures at Harvard or those monies that are always known but not talked about… how different our literary world view would be if otherwise.

In the Bishop PROSE the discovery for me is her text BRAZIL that was written to a Time Life series… and in her letters there is a reference to Nelida Pinon… but that is for another day.

To repeat: celebrate FSG for its faithfulness, a virtue rare indeed today in the world of publishing.. and a few lines from Bishop:

From “Dead” The Winter is her lover now,/A brilliant one and bold;/And sbge has gone away from me,/Estranged and white and cold.

From “Sleeping on the Ceiling” It is so peaceful on the celing!/ It is the Place de la Concorde./The little crystal chandelier/ is off, the fountain is in the dark./Not a soul is in the park./ … We must go under the wallpaper/to meet the insect gladiator,/ to battle with a net and trident,/ and leave the fountain and square./ But oh, that we would sleep up there…