The following appeared alongside the October 2019 monthly mailing from Sublunary Editions, which featured three short essays from Fabio Morábito, taken from his collection El idioma materno (Mother Tongue), translated by Curtis Bauer.
Literature has two functions: to show us the promise of language as either a beacon or salve, or two disavow us of the idea that language can at all make sense of the world. Its history is blighted by false dichotomies. As such, what’s one more?
The former case often happens by pure happenstance, though it can be engineered once in a while, though it becomes painfully obvious when the well is approached one too many times. The spark of this kind of literature is often a novel juxtaposition, of words, phrases, images. The root of all art is in juxtaposition, and these are the quickest ways to forge new neuronal pathways. A physical rewiring of the brain is unavoidable, in fact, for the attentive reader, and, if the impression is strong enough, this connection may last some time, even until death. These small sparks can be thought of as metaphorlets, the kind of quantized packages that, in their larger, more complete forms—though how many grow to adulthood? very few—may well become fully functional metaphors, and I use functional in the sense of to do work. Our modern culture is propped up on metaphors, our foundations dug deep into the sediment of subsumed ideas, and atop our foundation, a stack of chairs atop which we sit, counting our modern blessings. This is the vantage afforded by metaphor. Ask the bricoleur to show you what he carries on his back, and you will see something akin to this stack of chairs, though just enough for one man. So we all proceed.
The discomfort we feel, fumbling for words, must be for some deeper part of our minds like watching an infant attempt to perform surgery on a capillary-rich organ. For most everyday speech we rely on patterns which sand down the edges of the truly novel, which we encounter far more than we realize. This typically comes out of the view that language is that in which we swim, and that our world is so shaped by it, that our minds produce it as the apex of an evolutionary process, that it is sometimes jarring when it fails—really fails, not just in the slip of the tongue, but at a fundamental level. I say sometimes, because this happens with astounding frequency, we are mostly just unaware of it and thus do not learn from it in useful ways. “[I]f we stick to the picture of language as a medium, something standing between the self and the nonhuman reality with which the self seeks to be in touch, we have made no progress”, wrote Richard Rorty in the opening chapter of his excellent Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity. But language evolves within the ecology of our minds, though I do not mean to suggest it can be at all private, an essay for another time.
All of this is to pay homage to the work of Fabio Morábito, in particular the texts of Mother Tongue, three of which are excerpted here. The eighty-four short fictions that make up the collection, many of which have not yet been published in English, are each illustrative of some way in which language proves a loose grip on a wet rock, where we thought it the rope and anchor. In “Vallejo’s Lookout”, he expresses deep affinity for the work of César Vallejo, even though he has only read lines and never complete poems by the Peruvian. Language is here subverted by something deeper as the medium of connection between writers, a sense of the language. In “Short Sentences”, Morábito laments the advice he was given at all stages of his education, to write “short sentences, short paragraphs, clear ideas”, sheering off the messy and unstable clauses that are the stuff of self, of style. And in “Poets Do Not Write Books”, Morábito expresses first dismay then a calm and reasoned acceptance at a remark by his mother that the books of poetry and plays that preceded his first novel, published at the age of fifty-five, were not really books. “[G]iving a title to a collection of poems,” he concedes, “is to ignore the anti-bookish and anti-official nature of poetry,” echoing Valéry when he wrote, “Most people have such a vague idea about poetry that this vague feeling itself is their definition of poetry.”
The essays of Mother Tongue are a model for dealing with the messy and contingent nature of language, not as dispassionate cynic, but as Camus’s happy Sisyphus, loving the brace of the boulder, but minding his toes near the top.