A constant becoming

The Complete Perfectionist
October 10, 1997

Christopher Maurer, whose translations of Baltasar Graci n prospered on the American bestseller lists and whose Englishing of Federico Garc!a Lorca's Collected Poems is highly regarded, introduces the Anglophone reader to a new aspect of the work of one of the century's most influential Spanish poets, the 1956 Nobel laureate Juan Ram"n Jimenez (1881-1958).

Jimenez wrote some 4,000 aphorisms, which were collected and published by Antonio S nchez Romeralo in 1990. Until now, the Jimenez aphorisms have received only desultory attention, but Maurer's book promises restitution. Drawn to the genre (if such it is) by Thomas a Kempis's The Imitation of Christ, which he read at 18, Jimenez went on to devour the form in Nietzsche, Marcus Aurelius and Pascal. With more than his usual gusto, he helped his wife translate Tagore's Stray Birds, to which he supplied his own subtitle: "Pensamientos y sentimientos" ("Thoughts and Feelings").

The Complete Perfectionist, says its editor, "is addressed not only to poets and writers but to those who dream of perfect work: professionals, artists or craftsmen who work freely and contentedly with hands and intellect". And one of the overall things it speaks of is spiritual stamina: the poet lived through the Great War, the Spanish civil war, and the second world war; was subject to recurring bouts of extreme depression; spent the last 22 years of his life in exile. During these grievous times, he separated his political engagement, that of a Spanish liberal, from his creative engagement, that of poet seer in the Platonic, romantic tradition, one who, in the words of Wallace Stevens, "gives life to the supreme fictions". Throughout his life, Jimenez remained faithful to his ideal: simple, pure, brief poetry devoted to limning moments of beauty and eventually exploring the mesh of his consciousness with the world. He could truly say: "I have dreamt my life and lived my dream."

Maurer sorts the aphorisms into 13 themes, such as "Self", "Rhythm", "Silence", "Memory". The seamless flow of his introductions into the aphorisms (separated only by "C.M.") testifies to the suitability of the translator to the poet, and also to Maurer's ability to become "invisible", to create an authorial presence that seems to override any feeling of translation.

The aphorisms defend their author's way of writing: "They say I am monotonous. True. All I sing is the universe", a vow whose echo of Whitman must be tempered with Tagore. Jimenez had an incomparable eye for relationships in the physical world: "Shadow doesn't leave a spot", a cloud is a broken wing with an unknown destination.

His work (and by extension his life, since he tried to minimise any distinction) was a constant becoming, a series of successive surprises that sought and at the same time denied perfection (could it be achieved it would cease to exist). "My work is - they say - unreal. Unreal, yes. But quiet and eternal amid the madness of life, like the shadow of a castle in the water that tries to carry it away.". The contingency of life and work could scarcely find a more suggestive expression.

He was among the legendary seekers of silence created by the industrial revolution (Proust, Carlyle), who in pursuit of the "prairie of silence" distinguished between solitude (necessary for creativity) and loneliness, with the warning issued by Jimenez that "You find in solitude only what you take to it".

The musings on memory are psychologically instructive. Running through them is the contention that forgetting is necessary to creativity, that too much retention of the past can impede utterance in the present: "On the scales of your life, give as much to forgetting as to remembering. Watch for their point of equilibrium." Awareness of the depth and complexity of mind is never absent: "In the poetic imagination, as in the sea, there may be zones of oblivion, but nothing is ever lost."

Of time and eternity, intensity of perception, the way symbols work ("Two roses are two; four, four; seven, seven. Many, one.") readers familiar with Jimenez will find abundant examples. Less well known, perhaps, is the contention between intelligence (control) and inspiration (instinct) that bemused both Yeats and the Spaniard, who says, "There is a place within us that can be reached by intelligence. But there is a deeper one that only the spirit can get to. And that is why those who are 'merely completely intelligent' - in science or art, verse or prose - always seem like spies."

Current approaches to poetry and criticism emphasise the inescapable presence of ideology. The work of Juan Ram"n Jimenez, to use a favourite word from this discourse, subverts that position, and reminds us of the wonderful ambiguity of poetry.

Consciousness, a question that occupies science today, has known many adventurers from both East and West. Tagore, whose spirit resonates so clearly in Jimenez, in his discussions with Einstein refused to accept that there could be any truth absolutely unrelated to humanity. Jimenez in his later years celebrated the existence of his consciousness of the world, an awareness at once human and god-like.

One of Jimenez's earliest aphorisms, rescued by Maurer in this delightful collection, offers sufficient redress for poetry: "The world does not need to come from a god. For better or worse, the world is here. But it does need to go to one (where is he?), and that is why the poet exists."

Howard Young is professor of romance languages, Pomona College, California.

The Complete Perfectionist: A Poetics of Work

Editor - Christopher Maurer
ISBN - 0 385 48022 9
Publisher - Doubleday
Price - $21.00
Pages - 194
Translator - Christopher Maurer

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