Sergio Pitol

An Ars Poetica?
(For Ednodio Qintero)


I was invited to attend a biennale of writers in Mérida, Venezuela, where each of the participants was to explain his own concept of an ars poetica. I lived in terror for weekes. What did I have to say on this subject? The best I could do, I told myself, would be to draft an Ars Combinatoria. Or, more modestly, to enumerate certain issues and circumstances that in some way define my writing.

*     *     *

[On Alfonso Reyes]

[Borges on Reyes, translated by Harold Morland *]

In his labors he was helped by mankind’s
hope, which was the light of his life
to create a line that is not to be forgotten
and to renew Castilian prose.

*     *     *

I owe to our great polygraph, and to several years of tenacious reading, my passion for language; I admire his secret and serene originality, his infinite combinatory ability, his humor, his talent for inserting everyday expressions, seemingly at odds with literary language, into a masterful exposition on Góngora, Virgil, or Mallarmé. Even though I may have been deaf to the theoretical reason present in Reyes, I am indebted to him for introducing me to the various fields to which I might have otherwise have been slow to arrive: the Hellenistic world, medieval Spanish literature, the Golden Age, Brazil’s sertão novels and avant-garde poetry, Sterne, Borges, Francisco Delicado, the detective novel, and so much more!

*     *     *

In the end, each author has to create his own poetics, lest he be content to be the succubus or the acolyte of a teacher. Each will establish, or perhaps it would be better to say that he will find, the form that his writing demands, since no narrative is possible without the existence of form. And in this way, the hypothetical creator must be guided by his own instincts.

*     *     *

Similarly, even before reading James, my stories were characterized by their representation of an oblique view of reality. In general, there is a hole in them, an ominous void that is almost never covered. At least not entirely.

*     *     *

The origin of this literary tradition dates back to One Thousand and One Nights. In the Far East, this device has been employed frequently and has produced works that we inevitably call masterpieces: Cao Xuequin’s Dream of the Red Chamber, written in China in the eighteenth century, and the short story “Rashomon.” by Ryūnosuke Akutagawa, written in early twentieth-century Japan. Its Occidental counterpart is easier to trace. We find it, of course, in the Quixote, in the Canterbury Tales; it reemerges in the Enlightenment, with amazing energy, in Jacques the Fatalist and His Master, by Diderot; in Jan Potocki’s The Manuscript Found in Saragossa; and in that wonder of wonders, Tristram Shandy, by Laurence Sterne. In our century, this type of novel, whose composition has always been associated with Chinese boxes or Russian matryoshka dolls, and which today theorists call mise en abyme (placed into abyss), has found a legion of fans. Allow me to recite three remarkable titles: Ford Madox Ford’s The Good Soldier, Nabokov's The Real Life of Sebastian Knight, and The Garden of Forking Paths by Jorge Luis Borges.

*     *     *

How do we understand, then, the work of Henry James, Ivy Compton-Burnett, Valle-Inclán, Borges, Saramago, and Gombrowicz, for example, for whom excellence depends on the permanent exacerbation of a personal style? In the end, it really is a matter, I imagine, of preventing language from passing, by sheer inertia, from one book to another and becoming a parody of itself, lulled by the energy of the momentum gained. The only influence that one must defend oneself against is one’s own, declares the master of clarity, Bioy Casares.

*     *     *

Xalapa, September 1993

SOURCE: Pitol, Sergio. The Art of Flight, translated from the Spanish by George Henson; introduction by Enrique Vila-Matas. Dallas: Deep Vellum Publishing, 2015.

* “In Memoriam: A. R.” by Jorge Luis Borges, from Dreamtigers, translated by Harold Morland.

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ars combinatoria @ Ĝirafo

In Memoriam: A. R.
by Jorge Luis Borges, translated by Harold Morland

Alfonso Reyes - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

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