preface to a literary work
Christopher Domínguez Michael
La palabra quebrada
Editor’s Note: This preface is from the new Mexican edition of La palabra quebrada: Ensayo sobre el ensayo by Martín Cerda, published by E1 Ediciones. Below we include a bibliographical summary of the book, followed by the preface by Christopher Domínguez Michael.
This edition of La palabra quebrada: Ensayo sobre el ensayo by Chilean author Martín Cerda aims to invite Mexican readers to experience and enjoy part of the work of a master of Hispano-American literature. Erudition and lucidity form equal part of this work, which is read as a cult book in South America. La palabra quebrada: Ensayo sobre el ensayo is doubly celebrated with a new edition, forty years after its original publication, in tribute to “the Ulysses of paper, of ink, of letters” (Alfonso Reyes).
The Mexican edition of La palabra quebrada corrects orthographic errors from the first Chilean edition, adds translations of quotes included as footnotes, and updates the final section of bibliographic references (all indicated between brackets).
Lastly, this edition features a prologue by Mexican literary critic Christopher Domínguez Michael.
Writer Gonzalo Geraldo comments: “The Mexican edition of La palabra quebrada: Ensayo sobre el ensayo (E1 Ediciones) not only celebrates the forty-year anniversary of one of the first books in Spanish to focus on “the centaur of the genres,” from Lukács’ Soul and Form to Jünger’s diaries, from Bacon’s idola to Ortega y Gasset’s Espectador; it also introduces the Spanish-speaking public to the figure and work of Chilean literary critic and essayist Martín Cerda (1930-1991), a contemporary of authors like Juan García Ponce and Héctor Murena, who was a true master of writing and ideas on literature, compelling readers to ‘unthink’ in a context ever more gripped by the commitments and prejudices of the age.”
Martín Cerda (Antofagasta, 1930-Santiago de Chile, 1991) was close to me for almost thirty years. I was, however, unaware of his closeness. I knew of him thanks to Escombros: Apuntes sobre literatura y otros asuntos (2008). But when, a few months ago, I received a message from Chile asking me to write the preface for the first Mexican edition of his ópera prima, I felt an immediate (and, I now recognize, profound) identification with him—one that only deepened when I read, shortly after, two more of his as-yet unpublished books: Surcos apenas visibles and Precisiones.
And, when I inquired on Isla Negra about certain details of Cerda’s biography that struck me as confusing—I found out that it was in 1975 when he went into exile in Venezuela, the country where he had spent many years at the start of the previous decade—they told me that in no other journal than Vuelta, while I was on its editorial board, in January of 1992, there appeared an obituary by way of homage to Cerda himself, penned by Guillermo Sucre: a matter of which I was entirely unaware at the time.
Reading La palabra quebrada: Ensayo sobre el ensayo, followed by Escritorio (2005), I saw that this latter book, whose first edition is from 1987, was dedicated to Julieta and Guillermo Sucre. This discovery sent a shiver down my spine, as I made it just a few days before Guillermo’s death. I never met him in person, but he offered me encouragement I will never forget, in writing, when I published Tiros en el concierto: Literatura mexicana del siglo V (1997). These coincidences were quite sufficient to engender the fantasy that, since then, Cerda had been looking over my shoulder at whatever I was writing.
So, I begin this jaunt through the Chilean essayist’s oeuvre at La palabra quebrada. I will call neither his subjects nor his authors original. They are not so. While idiosyncratic, they belong to the private library of any properly sophisticated reader of the second half of the twentieth century. Thus, Cerda’s affinities tend toward promiscuity: from Blanchot to Drieu la Rochelle, passing through Walser. And reading Cerda’s broader body of work, beyond La palabra quebrada, one’s hair almost stands on end at the sheer number of essential authors of whom the Chilean takes note, sometimes with a mere sentence, and often a decisive one; he was, after all, a master of the briefest of texts, at times, and a compulsive quoter of his contemporary classics at others, his pen often spilling ink in Ercilla, La Tercera, and PEC.
Cerda placed great emphasis on the writing of his French contemporaries, from existentialism—he was there in time to study under Merleau-Ponty at the Sorbonne—to poststructuralism, up to the Baudrillards. Like the rest of his generation, he never stopped admiring Sartre as the decisive intellectual, if not “the last intellectual,” although Cerda was far—very far—from wagering on marxism as the insurmountable philosophy of the day. He once loved Barthes, too, and he stopped loving him for a time only to ultimately be reconciled; he could forget neither Walter Benjamin nor the young Lukács of Soul and Form (1911), the tutelary figure who guided Cerda through his essay on the essay. Also, like some others, he was fascinated by the writers of the Conversivative Revolution (he would publish articles on Ernst Jünger just as, in the Mexico City of the early eighties, Juan García Ponce and José María Pérez Gay were debating over On the Marble Cliffs and The Worker).
Cerda spurred me, starting on the computer screen, to seek authors hitherto entirely unknown to me, such as the German Felix Hartlaub (1913-1945), who bore firsthand witness to the fall of the Third Reich, and Norwegian resistance fighter Petter Moen (1901-1944), who died at sea on a German boat en route to a concentration camp, leaving behind a diary in code that Les Temps modernes would publicize after the war. I observed, in the end and with ill-tempered resignation, that Cerda, like other fervent readers not only of Jünger but also of Benn, Niekisch, and Von Salomon, while recognizing the horror of national-socialist Germany (we must never erase the regime’s second surname) and of its antisemitism, preferred not to delve too far into what was euphemistically called “the Jewish question.” He alludes to it, ritualistically condemning antisemitism and the Holocaust, but he scarcely deigns to concede that Louis–Ferdinand Céline, with his Trifles for a Massacre, was, for want of a better word, a wretch. I have found myself talking to Cerda, not in dreams but in nightmares, and I have told him that the true horror of Céline’s dark and immense greatness is that his prose, from Journey to the End of Night on, could not do without its antisemitic venom. So it goes as well with Heidegger’s philosophy; his posthumous Black Notebooks render it impossible to decouple the thinker from his phobias.
Also present in this family album are the other redressed offenders who, with a higher death rate than the German revolutionary-conservatives, believed in the other mirage: the Soviet Union. Here we find the Babels, the Pilniaks, the Mandelstams. Some among us are obsessively inclined to hear their tale of woe repeated, especially if we remember that Cerda was writing just as Solzhenitsyn was leaving his exile for the West, where few awaited him with open arms and where the hero of the Gulag Archipelago arrived disillusioned. We are all children of the Terror, Cerda reminds us, quoting Rivarol.
In La palabra quebrada (1982), in Escritorio (1987), and in Escombros (2008)—the books by Cerda I had on my desk before being provided with other, unpublished volumes—there is hardly a mention of Chilean literature (and Cerda was president of Chile’s Society of Writers from 1984 to 1987). Such mentions do exist, albeit sparsely, in other parts of his work that have yet to be compiled, like his writing in La Gaceta, La Tercera, and Las Últimas Noticias, where he puts forth a list that will surprise those whose knowledge of Chilean letters ends at the lineups of international prizes: from now-fully reivindicated chronicler Joaquín Edwards Bello to the happily eccentric surrealists of the Mandrágora Group like Teófilo Cid and Enrique Gómez-Correa, María Luisa Bombal through the eyes of Ágata Giglio, José Donoso, Jorge Edwards, and Juan Luis Martínez, not leaving out his treks through Chilote territory, where, in summer of 1999 and guided by poet Gonzalo Rojas, I could never set foot.
Cerda was a dedicated reader of José Ortega y Gasset, and also of Reyes (the least well known of the bunch, the reader of Mallarmé), of Uslar Pietri, of the cosmopolitan Borges (understood as a problem), and of Paz. Cerda was no stranger to the critical ecumene of our language: he did not meet the suicide of Argentina’s Héctor A. Murena in 1975 with indifference—a funereal sign to the initiated. The only time I crossed words with Tomás Eloy Martínez, in a hotel lobby in Santiago de Chile, the words in question were these, unforeseen, on Murena. But getting back to Cerda: not even Enrique Lafourcade’s Salvador Allende (1973) escaped his attention.
Hardly a single page of his lacks the presence of Ortega y Gasset, and Cerda’s thorough knowledge of the French (only in Chile do they reread Bourget, I gather, thanks to Edwards, the happy ninety-something-year-old, along with, today, the author of La palabra quebrada) and German traditions was born, nobly, from a profound understanding of our modern classics in Spanish. I can ask no more of a writer for whom the essay is and will be the very source of literary criticism. Thus, he planned to write on Rivière, Paulhan, and Leiris, but also on Madame de Staël. Nothing that interests me escaped Cerda, which has turned him into my bread-and-butter.
A master of his Montaigne, of course, but also of Bacon (somewhat forgotten, like another father of the essay), Cerda practices a synthetic style of writing, a little predictable, somewhat professorly (never too much). It is in his second book, Escritorio, where the Chilean takes his greatest liberties. After warning us, with Cid, that “the first, most elemental and primary responsibility” of a writer “is not to publish superfluous books,” Cerda proves that Escritorio is no such book. “The writer’s desk,” he sustains, “is perhaps just a degraded imitation of the monk’s scriptorium, but it responds, at any rate, to the same principle,” recalling a letter from Nietzsche to Rohde, written at the outbreak of the Franco-Prussian War, in which “he told his loyal peer: we are going to once again need monasteries. And we will be their first friars.”
The writing desk, for Cerda, is a piece of furniture (he was well aware of Praz’s statement on pre-bourgeois movables) and, at once, and as the postmodern would say, an artifact. Its dimensions, its nooks and crannies, make it a metaphor for the literary work itself, but as the site of literary production (as Valery understood it) it is also the rack on which whosoever writes a great deal—or almost not at all—is painfully stretched. Cerda sees in the author’s work desk (or the non-author’s, I insist) either geometrical disorder or a baroque wallpapering job; I am not sure which. In its nature as a realm closed off to the impious and importunate, he sees it as a structure that mimics the literary (and not necessarily intimate) diary—which, in his opinion, attested in the twentieth century to the enmity between life and literature—and the endless profusion of rough drafts, and the hopeless search for the Book.
“The desk,” Cerda concludes in Escritorio, is “the point from which the writer organizes the ceremonial space of writing, circumscribing it as a working order and, at the same time, proscribing from said order all that which, in one way or another, might disrupt or threaten it.” “This sybilline little book” of Cerda’s, which Sucre finds “somewhat theatrical,” and which “in revealing its own staging to the reader, unfurls bit by bit as a mise en scène of times and plots, of the varied faces of an author who, nonetheless, hides away, showing his face all the while,” could also have been titled Notas de mesa. If Sucre’s words ring true, I am within my rights to imagine an installation of Cerda’s writing desk on the Paseo Ahumada, a work of mobile art by the poet Lihn, which would consummate what I humbly understand as Chileanity.
Having decided to “return to his country in the midst of the iron-fisted tyranny that governed it,” rather than staying “in the opulent and ostentatious Caracas of the day,” where Sucre had welcomed him at the Monte Ávila publishing house, life was cruel to Cerda. His Chilean friend, the Venezuelan fellow poet tells us, found refuge as a professor in Punta Arenas, the most southerly city in the world, taken in by the Universidad de Magallanes, where he would compose his masterpiece, Montaigne y el Nuevo Mundo. He moved to the south, and he took his manuscripts and his library with him. And one day in August of 1990, the guest house where he was staying, with all Cerda’s possessions down to the last page—a house made of wood, as they tend to be at the antipodes—burned down.
The survivor fell into indigence, propped up by a few friends, Guillermo Sucre wrote in his obituary in Vuelta. After a stroke, the essayist died of a heart attack the following year. Cerda seemed to have lost everything by then, starting with that work desk, the writer’s surface that was “the domestic reproduction of the architecture of the world,” as this uncommon martyr of literature once wrote, sure as he was that “no one is free of being left alone.”
If the story ended here, I feel my preface would be blemished by a certain romantic note unworthy of Cerda, because after the fire, he still saw fit to take “inventory” of which books were damaged and which were saved from the flames. When death finally came for him, the phoenix was indeed rising from the ashes. As in the case of the Arcades Project of his admired Benjamin (who, for better or for worse, we can now call the most influential critic of the past century), I am not sure if it would be appropriate to call what Cerda accomplished a “body of work.” His is a majestic ruin, as long and rich as the most exhaustive of onomastic indices, and as small and livable as a good writing desk, luxuriously fitted with roomy drawers and secret compartments.
Coyoacán, Mexico City, November 8, 2021