The following interview compiles the full set of questions and answers exchanged via email by Spanish journalist Juan Cruz and Venezuelan poet Rafael Cadenas. This exchange formed the basis of the version titled “Rafael Cadenas: ‘Sería saludable que los candidatos a la presidencia fuesen examinados por psicoterapeutas,’” published in El País on March 28, 2021.
Juan Cruz: As many years ago as your poem “Derrota” is old, we Canary Islanders used to live off what Venezuela sent us. Things have changed dramatically. How do you feel the weight of that history?
Rafael Cadenas: It touches me vividly. The grandfather of my wife, Milena, was from the Canary Islands, and she and I often visited those islands that love us and that we love, thanks to the historic bond you mention. Your question gives me the chance to say how happy it makes me that an offspring of those islands should be in the lives of our sons and daughters.
J.C.: How has what is happening in your country affected your spirits?
R.C.: It pains me, of course. It’s a situation that goes beyond the word “crisis,” but thanks to I-know-not-what factor I keep myself in good humor. Besides what’s happening in the political sphere, the confinement caused by the virus feels like nothing so much as being locked up. But it also allows us to read, to stop rushing as much as we can, to see inside ourselves.
J.C.: Dictatorships were common currency in Venezuela, historically, for several successive decades. What has this repetitive, troubled political path made of your country?
R.C.: What is happening is a consequence of the past two centuries of history. The nineteenth century was taken up above all by armed confrontations between strongmen who had fought for independence. The writer Antonio Arráiz says there were more than forty revolutions—this is his term for these devastating disputes, although there were also bright spots represented by enlightened civilians.
The twentieth century was characterized by the struggle to establish a democratic government, led by those who emerged from the prisons of Juan Vicente Gómez. Venezuela had a period of democracy, but it was apparently unsolid: another dictator emerged from the army, this one toppled by the people and the army itself, but not before he mercilessly persecuted members of Acción Democrática and the Communist Party. It’s a good thing there are always some pro-civilian soldiers, but there are also fervently militaristic citizens. Let me clarify: all countries have armies, but militarism is the unmeasured exaltation of these armies. With the money he took as he fled, that dictator lived well in Spain. The poet and essayist Juan Liscano, an unheard voice, is the author of the book El horror por la historia. It seems to me that his career and that of psychiatry go hand in hand; both study normal human—or, better said, de-human—madness. Quite rightly, politicians don’t like psychology to enter their premises, when in reality it would be healthy for all presidential candidates to be examined by psychotherapists.
J.C.: In an interview from the past decade, you said, “We are getting poorer every day.” In some parts of the world, like Spain, political parties have existed that fought against this vision of defeat that politics inflicted upon Venezuela. What’s behind the failing of politics in your country?
R.C.: Maybe presidentialism, which has been, in my view, disastrous. I think we would do better with a parliamentary system, because the title of “prime minister” is more modest than that of “president,” which tends to make its holder haughty, change his nature, leave him vain. Then his inflated ego takes control. The president’s own self-importance forces him to hold on to his seat. He wants to be a candidate again. Power is evil, as Jacob Burckhardt said, having examined the history of humanity. He knew a great deal about it.
J.C.: Your literature has received awards and been feted outside your own country, in Spain, in other countries of Latin America. How have you experienced these honors?
R.C.: They have surprised me immensely, and I am grateful for them. Without them, I could not have borne this situation. Imagine it—as a retired professor, I get five dollars a month. With that, you could buy perhaps a liter of milk and a stick of bread. The autonomous universities no longer exist; left unprotected, they have been sacked, and a country without free universities falls behind. Then it takes a long time to remake them. In broader terms: Sartre turned down the Nobel Prize not out of humility but out of pride. I think the government is going to create different universities. It would be a mistake to create them for the purpose of indoctrination, with a view to bringing the population into alignment. Unamuno said he pitied a unanimous people. The antidote to counteract this is plurality, which is proper to human beings, who are the same and different at once.
J.C.: Some say you are a silent man; others attribute this to the virtue of discretion. What would be, in your own words today, a self-portrait of your tone of voice? Does this silence, or this discretion, take on the power of a metaphor, or of an attitude?
R.C.: It is an image. Sometimes I talk rather a lot, especially now on the phone, which makes up for the isolation since it’s hard to get together with friends. As far as my voice, it changes according to the strength of my spirits, which tends to decline in these years. It is quite understandable how people, with some exceptions, become sluggish. As far as secrets, I have several, but if I said them they would cease to be secrets. With regards to silence, I await true silence, which is an emptiness in which one becomes part of the whole. It is the suspension of the self.
J.C.: Poetry is your weapon. It always has been, for as much as it might be, as you say, “powerful and insignificant.” What gives you this power to transform what you are feeling into verse?
R.C.: I’ve never seen it that way. I am an unarmed man, an enemy of machismo, which must be studied in great depth because it takes part in history, which has not dawned on most of us. It is also the cause of femicide, which, at its core, besides the usual reasons, is due to a rejection of the feminine within those who commit it, because all of us, even “the most manly,” are androgynous. I am particularly worshipful of women. To me, even the euphemistically-called sex worker is sacred. Science tells the most macho among us that they have a feminine side; if they recognized it, they would feel complete. They would be human beings, not criminals.
I believe, when women notice some sign of violence in a man, they should not wait until the situation gets worse—they should report it to the competent authority.
J.C.: In 2008, you said, “The modern poet speaks from insecurity. Causes and flags are finished.” What has taken the place of these two traditional armaments of twentieth-century poetry?
R.C.: As William Carlos says, the fact of being is first and foremost—more important than causes and flags. That doesn’t mean we should lie still in the face of what’s going on in the world, which is so severe. We are in the sights of nationalisms, fanaticisms, terrorisms, totalitarianisms; I can’t list all the isms that lead to terrible wars. Even religions create division, when they should be promoters of unity.
Einstein called the first of these isms “an infantile disease…the measles of mankind.” Nonetheless, nations continue destroying themselves when we should already be cosmopolitan. Derrida calls on them to unite, Savater writes a book against fatherlands, and other very advanced thinkers concur on this stance, which does not mean they take apart their countries. They should be interviewed on the subject.
J.C.: In the Chávez era you said that if they were attacking you in your country—someone removed from political activity—you could only imagine what would happen to others who are more belligerent… What has been the consequence of this tacit persecution of dissidents for the creativity and freedom of writers and citizens? Has power succeeded in making silence (or discretion) a way to survive?
R.C.: Yes, I believe that has been achieved through what has happened: repression of protests, imprisonments, intimidations. People have been kept locked up for years. Fear seems to have taken hold of the population. Gone are newspapers, independent television stations, radio stations. The space in which to express oneself has been greatly reduced. There is self-censorship. Contradicting Rosa Luxemburg, who defended freedom for the different, here the different must keep quiet in order not to put themselves at risk. Nevertheless, poets and writers of varying ages still publish books, here or on the outside. I must mention that many of them are in other countries. Over five million Venezuelans have left—we can state, therefore, that this is an incomplete country. To add another very serious fact: the autonomous universities have disappeared.
I should clarify that I am quite critical of the regime, but without hate. Hate gets us nowhere. What’s more, the current assembly banned it. That shows that the assembly’s members don’t have it either.
J.C.: You have said you are, paraphrasing Machado, “an intense liver of the present”—that you have maintained your “wonder at how extraordinary everything is,” even if custom inhibits this wonder. Is this wonder simple enthusiasm, or it is a poet’s way of being?
R.C.: Sometimes I feel what is expressed in that wonderful phrase from Machado, but nothing is permanent. Everything comes and goes—that’s something those who govern should remember, especially those who resemble the man who still refuses to accept his defeat in the United States. Everything disappears, everything evaporates, as Rilke said.
As far as wonder, I am surprised so many people have the ability to feel it. I’ll give you just one example: we know nature produces everything, with no direction from anyone, except perhaps some intelligence superior to that of humans—which many scientists still bashfully call “instruction,” which means the same thing. This is found in any seed that will be guided to form some plant or another. In our case, what we call our “self” is not directed by any of our organs, and good thing too, because if it were it would make a mess of our bodies. There is even a word in Chinese that means “it is made by itself.” We also speak of genetic code, taking for granted that we know what it is. Is what this exemplifies not stunning?
I shall summarize the central point of what I think: if you look closely, the ordinary is extraordinary, but since we expect something grandiose, we devalue the commonplace. Sometimes we don’t even see it. I have learned all this through reading, more than lived experience; lived experience, as tradition dictates, is more costly. To have it, we must become like children.
Many of the thinkers I have read for many years—along with the ancients, like Heraclitus, Marcus Aurelius, and Epicurus, whom I call postmodern—come from quantum physics, and lead into what Wittgenstein called the mystical: a concept that is not religious but ontological. The fact that the world is is, for him, the mystical.
Incidentally, I call Saint Teresa a Zen master, because when she strays from her Catholic path, her sayings fall neatly within the Buddhist current. I shall cite one: “the delicious must be taken as happily as the bitter,” a harsh demand found also in the thinkers who interest me, like Jeff Foster, Frigof, Capra, David Bohm, and others. I have read a great deal of Alan Watts, whose books are being published by Pre-Textos, which I think is important.
Everyone insists on the need to accept what is, the real, even unacceptance. This must be an experience. They also value the present moment, the only way to set time to one side. At the same time, we are more aware of what’s going on. This is mindfulness, which is well known today. Jorge Guillén came very close to these thinkers in his sense of reality, especially in Cántico. He is not among its “loathers,” as Antonio Machado said.
Returning to wonder, in a few brief texts for the journal Actual, from Mérida, Venezuela, I used as an epigraph the phrase, “I exist to be amazed.” It is by a friend, Goethe, and I used it to show the importance he ascribed to this feeling. Another friend, Pedro Salinas, calls it “awe,” a word I love. Wonder, in its discovery, brings us new life.
Although I would like to continue, I shall move on to another point. Old Lady Corruption has expanded so far that we should throw out of the dictionary, in Taoist style, words like morals, honesty, rights, truth, justice, equality, and many others, to see if their meanings might thereby be brought back to life.
J.C.: In your dialogue with León Felipe (in Contestaciones), you say to the poet who wrote “¡Eh! ¡Que viene el lobo!”: “Nobody heard that scream. It was useless: the Spanish, unaware, slept with the wolf because they were full of future.” Could something similar be said in a dialogue with yourself on the subject of Venezuela? Could anyone have shouted out, “Hey! Here comes the wolf!”
R.C.: Yes, many times since the nineteenth century when heroes—as tends to happen, perhaps not in all cases—transformed from aspirants to dictators. It happens in today’s world as well. It seems to be a law of history. Tito—to name one example among many—fought against the Nazis and then established a communist dictatorship.
In that answer, that “contestación,” I referred to Spain only as an allusion to the future. While the wolf also bites the past, in your country an addiction to the future has, perhaps, prevailed: the future that exists only as an idea, and that sometimes holds up those in power as if suspended over the earth, a centimeter, a meter or more. The wolf is the devourer of the present.
J.C.: What has the wolf done to Venezuela?
R.C.: That question is answered, in a way, in my previous response. I figure the same thing happens in many countries with governments placed under great pressure that neglect the immediate. They want to change the world and they forget the matters that truly demand attention.
J.C.: This past year has been fateful for the world, in all its regions. Has poetry gone along with it? These have been hard times for verse. Has wonder or joy been wounded? Brecht said there will also be singing in dark times. Has there been any line worth singing?
R.C.: I have found company, above all, in reading thinkers, like those I have mentioned; in the essential poetry that lies in everyday life; our son and our granddaughter. Wonder visits me more than joy, for which I apologize to Spinoza. There is no song, but I am gathering up that which, out of negligence, I didn’t publish some forty years ago. It’s prose, talks first and foremost, more than poetry.
J.C.: Georg Johannesen, cited in Contestaciones, said: “The wise fall silent/ in bad times./ I, in bad times,/ am not wise./ I sing and speak/ of bad times.” And you respond. Imagine you had not responded to him in the book. What would you say to him under these circumstances?
R.C.: To those who know how to live above all, I imagine, it is unnecessary to say anything. On the contrary, they are the ones who could give us direction, if they were heard. If that were the case, history would be different: a history of not-so-bad times.
For thousands of years, human beings have dedicated themselves to destroying each other in countless wars; in fact, we do not know how many there have been, and many have been fought in hopes of ending war altogether. Unbelievable, right? We learn nothing! Today, we continue to accept as normal the fact that the most civilized nations count among their industries the manufacture of ever “better” weapons. That old saying, “if you want peace, get ready for war,” remains in force, and the world feels no shame over it. Life tends to be called, hypocritically, “sacred” by those who trespass against it. The struggle between civilization and barbarity continues the world over. To date, what has been done to put an end to barbarity has been in vain.
Translated by Arthur Malcolm Dixon
Arthur Malcolm Dixon is co-founder, lead translator, and Managing Editor of Latin American Literature Today. He has translated the novels Immigration: The Contest by Carlos Gámez Pérez and There Are Not So Many Stars by Isaí Moreno (Katakana Editores), as well as the verse collection Intensive Care by Arturo Gutiérrez Plaza (Alliteratïon). He also works as a community interpreter in Tulsa, Oklahoma and is a Tulsa Artist Fellow.