At Universidad Santa Maria in Caracas there have been a series of weekly talks on varied forms of Culture, including what we call literary genres. Based on the skill and mastery attributed to a given specialist in certain Humanist branches, they are invited to talk and discuss their own hunting ground, though perhaps the ideal of a great hunter would be to also be allowed to shoot into the field of his neighboring hunter. I, for one, would have liked to test my aim on the field of history, since I am now concerned about the issues of man as a history-making being. But I must resign myself to the classification and label that has been assigned to me, which is that of the “essayist.” And I will focus my reflections on what is called an “essay.”1
In Venezuela, we are still ailed by improvisation and mental sloth, and a label placed on a person is a way to elude the problems posed by criticizing or analyzing them, of knowing exactly about content and what can be inferred from its message. I have already been saddled with the title of “essayist,” and for people who have been patient enough to read or understand me, this would mean that every morning I sit at the typewriter I must secrete an essay lest I lose my claim to such an honorable classification. As a critic or essayist, I am not supposed to want to write a historical study, a short story or a novel or simply a polemic article, because I too need to relieve myself of any bitterness of the soul and even knock my head against the wall faced with an issue that should not be treated by use of platonic prose but invoked with sticks and stones. I seem to be doomed to turn everything I touch into an “essay,” although sometimes I aspire to a simpler denomination for a writer who only chooses the most appropriate technique depending on what he wants to do. Since writing is a craft that differs from others in its complexity and the repertoire of ideas and information used by each writer, I would be poorly acquainted with my profession if I could only let myself slip into an essayist’s trance. It is as though a carpenter’s clients solely asked him for matrimonial beds, and not chairs for sitting, tables for eating or shelves for storing books. And the best advice that can be handed out by an old writer, given to desolate autumnal meditation, is to work on your expressive instrument with the same exactness and configurating variety with which the good carpenter transforms a piece of wood into an object that is both beautiful and socially useful. To ensure that the words of the writer are useful and are not left tangled like saw wood in a jack plane, his work must be made using invisible squares and instruments of calculus, because even that which the tousled Romantics called “inspiration” only comes to the spirit frequented by study, meditation and woe. And therefore more important than the label we’re assigned as we negotiate our passage through life, we must know how to comply with our craft to be welcomed or expelled from literary History, and we must know if those who, intending to be masters at the age of twenty, were deemed mere apprentices due to lack of culture, originality or expressive means. More than mere talent revealed in a literary work, we are moved to applaud the challenging difficulties that originated it. For solely talent would not suffice to write The Magic Mountain or the essays of Paul Valery. And the important thing with Literature is not the ease with which it can be made; the hedonistic surrender to the ephemeral with which certains writers triumph, only to be soon forgotten; the important thing it is that part of the work which is an issue, an expression of anguished or enlightened humanity offered to the reader by the work. Posterity edifies a sort of Literary Purgatory, where even geniuses such as Victor Hugo must pay for thousands of pages that were mere oratory and incontinence, and don Emilio Castelar now burns for having said so many speeches where words hung like vines, and Zorrilla must pay for his superficial verses, as don Jose María de Pereda must expiate the conventionalisms of his novels. As for the demagogues of Art, those will never see eternal beatitude.
For those who no longer are satisfied by the embalmed classifications of old perspectives, a literary genre does not only differentiate itself historically from another due to the verbal technique used, but due to the function it fulfills. If, for man, life is a sort of labyrinth where decisions must be made and others must be aided in their quest for conscience, we could say that an experience of the terrestrial Dedalus is expressed in three fundamental literary structures: Poetry, Novel, and Essay. In his imagistic virtue, the poet feels and expresses this experience with totalizing emotion; the poet does not only sing to express the world’s sorrow or hope deep within him; he subjectivizes the Cosmos and seems to return it to the river of Lyric. The novelist describes by means of concretized and particularized relations, through men called Pedro, Juan and Diego—as the Catechism said, each answering to his own name—the personal and collective consequences generated by the maze with its chronicle of love, economic strife, crime and death. Sometimes—if he is a great novelist—he does not even solve the problem, but leaves his characters tied to their unsolvable anguish, like those terrible souls of Dostoevsky, punished by extreme abandonment. In such awful circumstances, only God could resolve a Dostoevskyan novel. The novel is transformed into a modern form of Promethean tragedy.
The task of the essayist—such as Carlyle, Emerson, Santayana, Unamuno—seems to reconcile Poetry and Philosophy, building a strange bridge between the world of images and the world of concepts; it warns man of the dark turns of the maze and seeks to help him find a way out. It does not intend, as the philosopher, to offer a temporally valid world system, but is generated by the immediate situation or conflict. Is it not true that both aspects participate in the same conflict to find the world of ideas or the world of interiority, Plato and Saint Augustin? This may explain the fallacy or artificiality of literary genres, as both the Platonic Dialogues and the Augustinian Confessions join in, simultaneously, the nature of Philosophy and the Essay. It is true that greater insistence on the concrete, a vision of the Universe that is not solely intellectual but also image-based, will mark the open boundary between essayist and philosopher. When physicist Isaac Newton saw an apple drop on that autumn afternoon, perhaps the essayist would have been satisfied to write about the fact, leaving good Isaac full of cavillations; maybe the essayist would dare—were it not an anachronism—to announce to the Edinburg Journal that something of great significance was about to happen in the world of physical knowledge, while the philosopher would not have abandoned Newton until formulating, in a clear and distinct language, the laws of universal attraction. This path is taken, metaphorically speaking, as the essayist writes when an apple has fallen at his feet, and his refined hunter and poet’s olfactory sense tells him that something will happen or is happening. An essayist such as Erasmus seems to say to the Roman Church: be careful that a Luther may appear, or like Carlyle to the English Liberals: do not believe too much in supply and demand because a working-class avenger may appear. Maybe the essayist would not dare to transform a series of symptoms into laws—as a philosopher is likely to do—while the essayist will provide a portrait or description. And in this description, as well, not similar to that of the novelist, who would resolve it in the relationships between Juan, Diego, and Maria (since there are no novels without women, and even in stories that are considered most misogynistic there is always a woman, albeit in hiding), but would inscribe it in an experience that, through its highly personal nature, also aspires to that which we call “realism.”
By virtue of their very nature, the Essay prefers to develop in times of crisis, when man feels more confused and the values of an old culture are crumbling before others emerge. Plato, Lucian, Saint Augustine, were all successive witnesses of different crises of the ancient soul, and saw the birth and death of gods, extracting clarity and certainty from the unanimous turbulence. Likewise, the good Bordelais Michel de Montaigne, who does not want to be a hero, but only an illuminated, benevolent and sensible person, finds himself ahead of modern Philosophy and future illuminist thought, describing the raging confusion of the era in describing himself. It is wrong that the Catholics kill the Huguenots, and the Huguenots kill the Catholics, since no religion should allow for extermination. This is the simple truth that he deducts upon returning home, burdened by the tragic news from the streets and again feeling the discomfort of his gallstones. He sits to reflect at his desk and rereads Tacitus—who saw similar carnage and violence—to explain what better norm man can aspire to.
Seen in this light, everyone could write essays because everyone has seen injustice, but as essays are not exclusively ethical, and not even the most vigorous syndicate of essayists would aspire to suddenly change the multiple ineptness and abuses of the human species, the problem becomes one specific to Literature, which is how things are said. Many young men have lost themselves in the streets of Carthage, loved the courtesans, adored the false gods and later received—as extraordinary nocturnal light, as source of deep interiority—the message of the new religion of Christ, but only Saint Augustine could write the Confessions. And in the same way that so many letters and testimonies must have crossed between Paris and Bordeaux during the religious wars of the late sixteenth century, the words of the author of the Essays prevail over all, not only because these words teach tolerance and justice, but because they are written in a tongue that the author himself calls “succulent and nervous, short and concise, not delicate and coiffed as much as vehement and abrupt”; the tongue that reveals the unmistakable personality of Montaigne as patron of all essayists.
The formula of the essay—how simple it seems when you write it!—would be that of all Literature: to have something to say; to say it in a way that agitates the conscience and awakens the emotions in all men, and in a tongue so personal and so much the writer’s own that the language baptizes itself. Thus, we speak of Platonic, Voltairean, Cervantine, Unamunesque prose. The rest is just the supplementary adornments of a rhetoric of which not even the greatest writers prescind, entirely to make more social, easy, and assimilable the cathartic and explosive effect of great ideas, as well as the authenticity and explosiveness of great ideas and authentic books. Literature, like every human product, dons a mask; one that in our era can be a gas mask.
Translated by Beverly Pérez Rego
1 In: Mariano Picón Salas. Viejos y nuevos mundos. Caracas: Biblioteca Ayacucho: 501-505. Selection, foreword and timeline: Guillermo Sucre. Bibliography: Rafael Ángel Rivas Dugarte (Col Clásica, vol. 101).
Beverly Pérez Rego is a Venezuelan poet and translator. She is the author of five volumes of poetry, Artes del vidrio (1992), Libro de cetrería (1994), Providencia (1998), Grimorio (2002), and Escurana (2004); collected in 2006 as Poesía reunida. Her poems have appeared in numerous anthologies, and her publications also include translations of Louise Glück (2009), Anne Waldman (1997), Clara Sabater (2016) and Mark Strand (2011). An anthology of Venezuelan poetry translated into English is forthcoming, as well as a collection of short stories and alt-fiction. Pérez Rego received the Rafael Bolívar Coronado Biennial Literary Prize in Poetry and the Elías David Curiel Poetry Award, was a Poetry Fellow at Pittsburgh’s City of Asylum and the International Writing Program of the University of Iowa, where she later obtained an MFA in Spanish and an MFA in Translation. She currently lives in Caracas.