Books: Cultural Amnesia — Ernesto Sábato |
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Ernesto Sábato was born in Buenos Aires in 1911 and studied physics and philosophy at the University of la Plata. For the first part of his long career he combined science with radical politics. In 1930 he joined the Juventud Comunista and by 1933 he had risen to become secretary of that embattled organization, but his doubts about Stalin had already begun. Reluctant to let the Party go, he eventually sought renewal of his faith by enrolling at the School of Leninism in Moscow. Luckily he had got only as far as Brussels when news of the Moscow trials led him to break a journey which, he later admitted, would surely have ended in his premature death. At the Curie Laboratory in Paris he went on with his study of physics, and was present when the French did enough work on the atom to give an idea of the destructive power that was on its way. Sábato, always prone to thoughts of suicide and large questions about life and death, was suitably impressed by the prospect of doom for all mankind. After 1945 he did no more physics, giving himself full-time to writing, painting and education. But when he wrote articles in dispraise of the Peron regime, the public education system was no longer a field open to him, and he had to transmit his ideas by writing. His novels—most famously The Tunnel (1948)—are important, but unwieldy for the beginning reader. His essays provide the ideal approach to his teeming range of opinion, almost all of it reasonable, even when camped beween the dream world and the world. During the war over the Malvinas in 1982 he took Argentina’s part but that didn’t stop him burying the last credentials of the junta with his editorship of Nunca Mas (Never Again, often called simply the Sábato Report), which detailed and analysed the atrocities of the military regime. He was even better than Borges at being interviewed, so when they talked with each other they could cut out the middleman. The transcripts of their dialogues are delightful. Sábato’s non-fictional prose is collected in half a dozen attractively presented volumes of essays which he himself, as a pedagogue, might have designed as magically unputdownable textbooks for foreigners learning to read Spanish. In his later years, after he was medically declared to be too blind to read and write, he has concentrated on his painting: a typically category-busting gesture from a writer so good at convincing the rest of us that we aren’t looking hard enough, and especially not into our own memories. Sábato’s memory of his radical years has served him well. Protected against snobbery, he never fell for the illusion, rife in the elevated Argentinian literary world, that art was only for the elect. He thought that even humble journalists could share the glory of a genius, simply by pointing out that he was there, and thus offering him the consolation of understanding. Sábato has a phrase for it: la infinita liberacion de no saberse solo. The infinite liberation of knowing that one is not alone. I should add, in fairness, that there are young intellectuals in Argentina who find my admiration for Sábato incomprehensible. They remember that he, too, like Borges, sat down with the generals. But I rememer that he stood up again; and his prose, which they find stifling, I find lucid. But that could be the usual effect of reading in a language not one’s own: one is too easily impressed.

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Only a thick skin can defend itself, and the characteristic of an artist is an extreme delicacy of skin.

IF I HAD my time again, I would never react publicly to criticism, no matter how unjustified. Unless the point in dispute is a point of fact, all you can do by doing so is to cooperate in your assailant’s aim of getting you onto your back foot and keeping you there. But this is mainly a tactical consideration. The injunction that you should not feel criticism is an impertinence. After all, when you criticized other people, it was on the assumption that they would feel it, or anyway ought to have done. Savagery of critical expression can often be put down to the critic’s belief that his subject, having become renowned, has attained a position of power, and might not be troubled unless well whipped; with the conscience-saving clause that the hurt will not go deep, because its recipient is too well-armoured with the world’s rewards. Success has given him a thick skin. But as Sábato was right to point out, for an artist there is no such thing as a thick skin. Sometimes his thin skin has to bear the weight of complete steel, but it will suffer from that too: the burden of seeming toughness is hard on the nerves, and you can’t wear a suit of armour to bed without losing sleep.

In his diaries, Thomas Mann made what sounded like anti-Semitic remarks about the critic Alfred Kerr. Mann was no anti-Semite, but he flew off the handle because Kerr had belittled him in print. (Mann, with some justification, thought that he was Goethe, so making him feel belittled was easy: all you had to do was suggest that he was only Schiller.) Proust’s invariable response to adverse criticism was to write to the critic at great length. When the first volume of À la recherche du temps perdu came out, it was panned in Le Temps by a blundering hack called Paul Souday. Proust wrote to him in detailed protest, and over a period of years invited him several times to dinner. Souday later claimed to have discovered Proust. In effect, Proust had disarmed his tormentor by taking him at his own absurdly exalted estimation. From my experience as a critic, I would have to conclude that no writer of any kind or degree is content to be taken any other way. Anthony Powell and Patrick White had in common an elephantine capacity to remember the perpetrators of an unfavourable notice: White sincerely believed that they were all in touch with one another. He kept a list. When I heard that I was on it, I wondered if he would send his seconds, or some large man carrying a tyre iron. I was also struck by John le Carré’s private reaction to a bad notice I gave his long novel The Honourable Schoolboy, which I thought, and said, was a put-up job. Le Carré did not react in public, but in private he spread the opinion that I was conducting a vendetta. Since, in the same article, I had called The Spy Who Came in from the Cold a masterpiece, it would have been a strange vendetta.

Le Carré would have been on solid ground if he had confined his annoyance to the industrial fact that a negative notice in the New York Review of Books could be of no help to his new book’s prospects in America, and might well have damaged them. I would guess, however, that he threw his toys out of the pram because I had suggested that his new book was a dud by his own standards. The compliment involved in that kind of condemnation never registers. I once saw a famously cool literary friend of mine turn angry enough to commit murder. A collection of his critical pieces had just been dismissively reviewed in the Times Literary Supplement, the burden of the review being that somebody of my friend’s high talents should not be wasting his time writing journalism. The paper’s reviewers were still anonymous in those days but my friend knew who the culprit was: a notorious dullard. The victim pronounced anathema not only against the dullard for writing the review, but against the editor for printing it. Clearly he would have liked to see the guilty pair lashed back to back with cable and used as landfill in the Thames estuary, but only after being toasted to the point of death with a flame-thrower. I was so shaken by the spectacle of his white lips and clenched fists—one of the fists had a pint of beer in it, so there was danger from flying glass—that I had trouble remembering three pertinent facts. The dullard’s sedulous mediocrity was fully revealed in his piece for all to see; almost every piece in the book that he had reviewed was more intransigent than the review; and it had been scarcely twenty-four hours since the victim, in that same pub, had given me a withering lecture on my absurd sensitivity to criticism.

But injured pride knows no reason: a fact I know from my other experience, as an author. It took me many years to grow out of the assumption that any adverse criticism was a personal attack. It felt like a personal attack. Sometimes it was meant to feel like that, but common sense should have told me at the time that a limiting judgement can be written out of regret as well as spite. After all, I would have been outraged if anyone had dared to suggest that my own limiting judgements on other authors were written out of anything except an objective care for literature. The fly in the ointment (what W. C. Fields called “the Ethiopian in the fuel supply” until he was stopped from doing it) is that an author’s work is his personality, so he can’t help feeling that any aspersions cast on it are cast on him. Realizing this to be so is one of the secrets of survival in the literary world: as so often happens in life, the strength that matters is gained from recognizing your weakness. Without going so far as to forgive yourself for it, you have to get it in perspective. The price of not doing so is a disabling petulance. Confidence must be preserved somehow, but to assume that everyone who criticizes you is out to get you is a bad way of preserving it.

One once-famous contemporary playwright always operated on the assumption that any hostile critic was motivated by envy of his fame, money, house and wife, all four of which were on display in the colour supplements from week to week. He missed out on listening properly to advice he should have heeded, because the day came when his major revenue stream consisted of royalties from Norway. I learned my own lesson when someone I knew and loved told me that I should be counting my syllables along with my stresses. We were having a huge fight at the time and I thought that everything he said against me was meant to wound. Some of it was, but on that point he was right. I learned another lesson when I finally realized that the point he had been right about was the hardest one to forgive him for. Even when they are confined to private interchange, these prickly sensitivities amount to the most uncomfortable thing about the creative life. One of the many advantages conferred by a general knowledge of the arts is the evidence it provides that not even the greatest figures are immune. What makes them great is that they are not disabled. Verdi longed for Wagner’s praise, but eventually wrote Falstaff without it. Renoir was right to be mortified when Degas found him wanting. (Where Renoir went wrong was in dismantling some of the strengths of his technique in an effort to correct the weaknesses: he should have trusted his public.) Keeping an eye on yourself is a hard but necessary task. Much as it hurts, criticism can help you do it. A thick skin, taking nothing in, turns dry and cracks. The thin skin is the strong one. It wasn’t just generous of Sábato to say so: it was realistic.

The tango ... is the strangest popular song that mankind has ever produced, a popular song which is also the one and only introverted, even introspective, dance.

About the tango, Sábato intuited what Borges didn’t: that this strangest and most lovely of all dances is a self-assessment made compulsory by music. Borges is often given credit for a love and understanding of the tango, but the sad truth is that he declared it dead by the way he loved it, and missed its meaning by the way he understood it. When he came back from Europe to Buenos Aires in the twenties he did some leg-work in the low-life haunts of the compadrito, the bad guy of the bars and brothels. He concluded that the best of the music and the dancing was already over, when in fact it had just begun. But Sábato, if he said more than Borges ever did about the tango, still did not say much. Sábato sometimes gets the credit for the famous definition of the tango as a sad thought, dancing. It is nice to know that he was sensitive to the idea, but the idea was not his. As he was always careful to acknowledge, the definition was coined in the 1930s by a vernacular poet, Enrique Santos Discepolo. There were many gifted tango lyricists in Buenos Aires. Some of them were more celebrated than he was—Carlos Gardel was world-famous—and a few of them were almost as prolific, but nobody was both as gifted and prolific as Discepolo. All the literature that will ever really matter about the tango is in his lyrics. The acid jealousy is in them, and the dirt and the danger. They can be read with profit as an example of what an unrecognized poet can do with his freedom from respectability. But they can’t be read with as much profit as they can be listened to. Even with Discepolo, the words take you back to the music, and the average lyric by a less inventively observant writer never leaves the music, because it is too thin and predictable. The usual tango text is a sob story that clinches almost every quatrain with the word corazon. (Try substituting our non-resonant little word “heart” and you’ll see straight away why most tango lyrics don’t translate.) Accumulating over decades, the treasury of tango lyrics, repetitive though it is, already represents a large potential distraction from the music, and hence from the dance.

Unfortunately scholarship, which rarely dances, has an imperative of its own, and has been inexorably crowding into the act. In one language or another, there is a new book about the tango every month. There are whole sociological treatises on how the dance started. Was it a ritual parade of mutual ownership staged by a hooker and her pimp? Was it an elaborate ruse by two gay gauchos to placate a fractious steer? The one thing certain is that the news first leaked out from La Boca, the low-life port district of Buenos Aires. It definitely didn’t come in from Africa with the slaves, because there weren’t any. If the denizens of the bars and brothels did not actually invent the milonga and transform it into the tango, why did people of such low expectations develop an art-form so infinitely, so incongruously, so needlessly elaborate? (Because the tango’s improvised steps, like the moves in chess, rapidly extrapolate towards infinity, you will never dance the same tango twice unless you repeat the whole pattern from memory, on an empty floor.) How did it all happen? Since the origins are blurred, the opportunities for speculation are endless. As happened with jazz, the main threat posed by scholarship is that it will raise the tango to the level of respectability, and thus drain away some of the excitement. But comfort can be taken from the piquant fact that the tango has never become socially acceptable in its country of origin. For the upper classes of Argentina, the tango is a low-life event, and President Carlos Menem, by his avowed passion for the dance—in the ten years of his presidency from 1989 to 1999, he must have mentioned it a thousand times—only proved that his origins were on a par with his hairstyle and stacked heels.

To hear Menem tell it—and I heard him tell it, when I interviewed him in his office—he is a tanguero born and bred. In fact he can dance about three steps, which at least puts him ahead of Eva Peron, who never danced the tango in her life. Since her death, of course, she has been dancing it more and more all the time. In the movie of Evita—fun fascists burn the boards!—the tango goes on all around her, as if it had been the national dance of Argentina. It never was, still isn’t, and probably never will be as long as there are young females of good family who want to look as if they are saving themselves for a suitably elevated marriage. Strangely enough, there is a country which has the tango as its national dance: Finland. But an Evita story relocated to Finland was never on the cards.

If the tango has yet to complete its conquest of the country that gave it birth, it has certainly conquered the rest of the world, almost certainly because of its unique combination of beauty and difficulty: it is lovely if done well, but doing it well takes intense application. In Japan, for example, where ballroom dancing is taken very seriously, the tango is correctly judged to be the dance that leaves all the other dances looking elementary. It should be said in haste that the Argentinian tango is not really a ballroom dance at all. For a long time, the ballroom version of the tango was the only version the world knew about. Hence the impression, still widespread, that the dance is assembled from struts and poses, with a rose being passed from one set of bared teeth to another, as in Some Like It Hot. Gradually the touring tango shows from Argentina have supplemented that impression with a more subtle one, and among dancers all over the planet the tango is now seen to be a truly international culture in itself, with a full attendant panoply of legend, protocol, dress code and scholarship. Quite a load for a mere dance to carry.

And a dance is all it is. It’s the dance, and you have to take it seriously or you’ll never dance it, but if you can’t laugh at yourself along the way you’ll crack up before you get there. This is especially true for a man. A woman can learn the steps with reasonable ease, but a man, because he must lead, will be face to face with his own character when he finds he can’t. Previous experience in any form of dancing which entails holding on to a partner will be a help, but it won’t be enough to keep him from despair as he once again, for the tenth time that evening, steers a woman into trouble. Apart from her twitching hand and trembling back, the thing to grasp is that a minute’s dancing is worth a month of talk. A lot of what comes with the dance is fascinating, yet still irrelevant. What’s unequivocally worthwhile is the music, but it’s possible to go overboard even for that. By now even the wax cylinders of the first tango bands are on compact disc, proving that the sumptuous texture of the tango sound was there from the start. The sound has always had a drive that needs no drums: the bass fiddle, the pacemaker guitar, the staccato sob of the bandoneon squeezeboxes and the plinking pizzicato of the strings combine to provide the inexorable momentum. On top of the momentum the melodic interplay gives continually varied signals for the leader to alter his steps and for the woman to decorate hers with a kick or flicker of her free foot. The texture has always been an invitation to musical talent, and to trace the achievement of the individual composers and bandleaders like Anabal Troilo, Enrico Cadicamo, Oswaldo Pugliese or Carlos de Sali is almost as rewarding, in each case, as following Duke Ellington through the late thirties and early forties.

Standing at the post–World War II peak of the tradition, Astor Piazzolla was certainly a prodigy, but he might also have been a portent, not to say a nemesis. As a working member of Troilo’s orchestra, Piazzolla was boiling with so many of his own out-of-tempo ideas that he had roughly the same effect as Charlie Parker on Jay McShann’s sax section. When Troilo warned Piazzolla that people didn’t come to listen, they came to dance, he might not have been wrong. Piazzolla pushes the characteristic rubato of the tango to a point where only an expert dancer can respond to it, and tango music is dead if it loses touch with the dance. Collect the records by all means. A Japanese tango fan who goes by the name of Baba has accumulated more than five thousand of them. Several times a year, Baba makes the thirty-five-hour trip from Tokyo to Buenos Aires in order to bury himself in the record stores on and around the Avenida Corrientes. By my calculations he will never finish listening to the discs he already owns even if he spins them only once each, but one salient fact saves him from being a clinical case of tango loco: he must be practising his moves while he listens, because he dances pretty well. Several times in Buenos Aires after midnight, I have seen him dancing to the music he loves so much. He has a nice long tread and a neat swerve that he must have perfected while dodging around his free-standing stereo speakers back there in Japan.

Baba has been listening with his feet, and so should we all, because they are trying to tell us something. They are telling us that we can’t hear that bewitching music in its full whining, weeping, surging succulence until we see it danced. What was once true of jazz is still true of the tango. The rhythmic measure of pre-bop jazz was the human heartbeat, and the way to feel it fully was to watch dancers fling each other about. The rhythmic measure of the tango is the human breath, and you can feel it fully only when you watch dancers perform the visual equivalent of a sigh of regret and a moan of bliss. You have to see the sad thought, dancing. Even if I had been a mere onlooker, my own involvement with the tango would have been worth it for what I have seen. Not just in Buenos Aires but in London, Paris, Berlin, Madrid, New York, Nijmegen, Sydney, Melbourne, Adelaide and Auckland I have seen men and women, right in the middle of a jammed salon, create something for which only the word “poem” can serve the turn: the word “sculpture” would be too static. If I hadn’t been present, I would never have known, because these were poems written to be thrown away. No minicam will ever be able to capture those moments, even if it follows the dancers through the crowd. The observer has to be there, with the thing observed.

As to the question of how a man of my generation feels about women, I detect, at the eleventh hour, signs of improvement. Undoubtedly it was the sight of old goats with pretty young women in their arms that helped draw me into the tango world, a man in winter longing for a touch of spring. It is also inescapably true that sex and the tango are in close connection. But to be connected, things first have to be separate, and the beginner soon finds out that if he regards the salon as a make-out mall he will not get far. The attractions are real and the jealousies are awful, but they are usually more about dancing than about desire. In Buenos Aires, I have danced with women old enough to be my mother, and got furious when they danced better with their husbands. So if the passion to possess has not been quelled, at least it is operating on a scale less narrow. On the whole, I have seen few fields of human activity where the deep urge to love has come closer to being tamed and civilized. I am not even sure, any longer, that the urge to dance might not lie just as deep. On those terrifying nights of compulsory jollity in Stalin’s dacha, when the maidservants had been dismissed and the crazy old killer kept his drunken ministers awake until dawn, he would make them dance, and occasionally join in himself. His madness and their fear had reduced them all to a condition so primeval that they might as well have been wearing skins, yet dancing is what they did. There is a neutrality to dancing, if only because people, while they are doing it, can’t easily do anything else. Even a war dance happens before the war, not during it. Hitler and Goebbels both heard a tango orchestra, and quite approved. A pity they never got addicted, because as any man who tries it is bound to discover, it can’t be done without humility, and if you haven’t got much of that, you have to get some, or else give up. Sábato was right about the introspection. A man who wants to find out who he really is should try watching the woman he loves as she dances the tango with a maestro.