Books: Cultural Amnesia — Pedro Henriquez Ureña |
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Pedro Henriquez Ureña (1884–1946) was the philologist who taught a generation of Latin American cultural figures that they weren’t living in a backwater after all, but that they were actually—and precisely because of their historical position—at the forefront of the revival of civilization in the Spanish world. In other words, he told them that the small time was over and they were on to something big. His intellectual position was developed throughout his lifetime, but it depended on a proud confidence that he must have inherited. Born and raised in Santo Domingo, he moved to Cuba to write Ensayos Criticos (1906), his first book of critical essays. From the very start he was out to proclaim the essential oneness of the apparently fragmentary Latin American cultural achievement. He was doing so at a time when, apart from such a visionary poet as Rubén Darío in Nicaragua, no critical writers had been thinking that way in Latin America, or even in Spain: the only scholars of Latin American literature were English or German. He spent seven years in Mexico, where he pioneered a way of writing about the indigenous heritage and the Spanish heritage as simultaneous continuities: an emphasis that would be picked up half a century later by such writers as Octavio Paz and Carlos Fuentes. In 1915 Ureña went to New York, then to Washington, and then taught at the University of Minnesota until 1921: a period spent among the norteamericanos which increased his international prestige and therefore his influence in Latin America. During that period he spent time in Madrid, in fruitful conversation with the scholarly giant Alfonso Reyes and the philologist Menéndez Pidal, the man who invented the phrase “the spontaneous yearning after the totality of knowledge.” Knowledge ruled Ureña’s life but he couldn’t keep politics out, especially after the United States invaded the Dominican Republic in 1916. Although he eventually tended towards socialism, his political position mainly became apparent in his teachings about literature, in which his guiding principle was that the colonial history, properly interpreted, could be taken as a strength, not a weakness: there was such a thing as “spiritual nationalism” which arose spontaneously from a complex historic memory and could be cherished with a whole heart.

A single sentence by Ureña can be taken as the epigraph for the whole history of the burgeoning of Latin American literature in the twentieth century: “Todo aislamiento es ilusorio” (All isolation is illusory). Ureña pointed out that even the culture of the ancient Greeks had not grown in splendid isolation, but on a basis of nourishment imported from other places. A generation of writers were inspired by Ureña’s ability to reinterpret a history of failure and frustrated nationalism as a positive development. Not that his positive attitude was merely euphoric. He also warned them not to accept any patronizing foreign approval of their “exuberance.” Most of the exuberance, he warned, was mere verbosity, the sure sign of a sparse culture. His own prose was a model of vigour made stronger by not being given its head. But beyond his key place in the story of Latin America’s rise to prominence in the modern Spanish world, there is an important message for the entire world in his insistence that literacy was basic to all hopes of political maturity. His essays about the importance of teaching literature in the schools are classic statements of a true position from which liberal democracy will always be tempted to stray through its egalitiarian impulse towards making school easy. Ureña thought school should be demanding, but he had a convincing way of saying that the difficult could be delightful. Some of his best essays on the subject can be found in the two files under his complete name on the second page of his Google entry, one of which has an excellent summary of his career by the scholar Laura Febres.

After 1924 the constantly travelling Ureña came to rest in Argentina, first in La Plata and later in Buenos Aires, where he taught, among others, Ernesto Sábato: a fascinating example of the productive relationship between academic teacher and creative writer. Ureña died in Buenos Aires in 1946. In the Dominican Republic there is a university named after him but really his influence lives on in every good school south of the Rio Grande.

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Great art begins where grammar ends.

IN ARGENTINA JUST after World War II, Pedro Henriquez Ureña was a respected teacher of philology and Ernesto Sábato was one of his pupils. Later on, Sábato would become one of the most illustrious literary figures in Latin America’s growing cultural dominance of the Spanish-speaking world. But even at the time, the pupil needed no telling that the above statement was true. In Spanish it is easier to give the idea its proper chronology: “Donde termina la gramatica empieza el gran arte.” It is always encouraging to hear what you know by instinct resoundingly formulated by an authoritative figure, so that you can draw upon the memory for a lifetime. Certainly Ureña’s maxim is true for literature, and by extension for all the other arts: a thorough technical competence is the climbing frame for inspiration. Inspiration might never come, of course—there are plenty of well-schooled mediocrities in every field—but if it comes to the unprepared the result is a breech birth at best. The apparent exceptions are not really exceptions. If Moussorgsky had known more about orchestration there would have been no need of Rimsky-Korsakov’s improvements, but Moussorgsky still knew enough to write down what he heard in his head, and to modify it meaningfully on the paper. The Douanier Rousseau got enough technique from somewhere to make his jungle shine in the moonlight, and the ruinous results of Renoir’s belated thirst for schooling—his manière aigre—merely prove that if he had studied in the first place it would have been a good thing. Just because Picasso sailed through art school doesn’t mean that anybody else can sail past it.

Isadora Duncan’s spontaneous dancing influenced the ballet. She herself could dance ballet only to the extent that she was able to absorb some of its disciplines by mimicry. (Tamara Karsavina, in her marvellous memoir Theatre Street, recorded her admiration for Duncan but insisted that while real ballerinas might have profited from copying Isadora, Isadora could not possibly have copied them.) Although there is always an argument for vigorous primitivism against academic torpor, the argument is not very good, because the torpor is not really competent either: it has merely acquired one set of essentials while missing out on another. The trick is to see the art latent in the grammar, and to realize what the grammar can release when it is mastered: expression. In Franz Werfel’s bleak novel Verdi there is an even bleaker sub-plot in which the ageing Verdi, nerving himself to confront Wagner in Venice, meets instead an impoverished, tubercular young composer who rudely proclaims that he has discovered the next thing: a music beyond music, an expression without laws. Rendered arid by the force of Wagner’s example, unable to get started on his opera of King Lear, Verdi for once feels humble enough to give an ambitious upstart a hearing. For the sake of the young composer’s suffering wife and son, Verdi hopes that he will hear something wonderful. But the young composer, flailing at the piano, merely proves that he knows nothing about music: all he has is the desire, a consuming passion that kills him along with his disease.

There is a consoling mythology, constantly being added to, which would have us believe that genius operates beyond donkey work. Thus we are told reassuringly that Einstein was no better at arithmetic than we are; that Mozart gaily broke the rules of composition while jotting down a stream of black dots without even looking; and that Shakespeare didn’t care about grammar. Superficially, there are facts to lend substance to these illusions. But illusions they remain. There is always some autistic child in India who can speak in prime numbers, but that doesn’t mean that Einstein couldn’t add up; Mozart would not have been able to break the rules in an interesting way unless he was able to keep them if required; and Shakespeare, far from being careless about grammar, could depart from it in any direction only because he had first mastered it as a structure. Moreover, unless we ourselves know quite a lot about how grammar works, there will be severe limits on our capacity to understand what he wrote, especially when he seems to be at his most untrammelled. Take a single line from Henry V:

How ill white hairs become a fool and jester.

Here is a whole story in eleven syllables, but unless we grasp how an extremely compressed sentence can be put together, we won’t get the story out; and if Shakespeare had not grasped it, he would not have been able to put the story in. Though they might look like it at first glance, “ill” and “white” are not a pair of adjectives. “Ill” is an adverb, modifying the verb “become.” If this is not realized, the meaning is reversed. If Shakespeare hadn’t realized the fundamental difference between an adjective and an adverb, he couldn’t have written the sentence. A good actor will help him make the point, by emphasizing “ill” so that its effect carries over to “become.” But it is quite easy to imagine a bad actor missing the point, and conveying the impression that ill white hairs make a fool and jester look good, or, even worse—two errors for one—allowing it to be thought that ill white hairs have turned into a fool and jester. This latter kind of misapprehension has become especially likely in recent times. There are now a whole generation who have never been required to understand the verb “become” in any other sense than the one for which I employed it in the preceding sentence: in a previous generation they might have heard a fragment of popular song (“Moonlight becomes you”) and realized that there was another sense. But granted the slim possibility that a school pupil of today might encounter Shakespeare’s line and be asked to explain it, there would be no reproof for construing a meaning that the writer did not intend. More likely would be praise for a valid response: valid for the reader. The school of permissive reading, which is the natural child of the school of permissive writing, would like us to believe that such misapprehensions are creative in themselves: we are extracting from the text even greater riches than its author planned.

One of the reasons I have found the theatre almost uninhabitable is that even the best actors are allowed to miss such points all the time, and especially if the text is by Shakespeare. There are few recent actors who can speak like Gielgud, but that was inevitable: what grates is that there are almost none who can think like him. (Peter O’Toole, Antony Sher, Ian McKellen, Simon Callow and Kenneth Branagh all stand out because they can read well enough to write.) When the National Theatre was finally transferred from the Old Vic to its hardened missile silo on the South Bank, one of the opening attractions in the Olivier Theatre was Peter Hall’s production of Hamlet, starring Albert Finney. As the actors squeaked around the thrust stage in army surplus boots, I did my best to concede that it might be a legitimate production point: Elsinore might have looked more like a territorial army drill hall than a castle, and no doubt there was some pretty anachronistic footwear at the Globe. But Finney’s line readings made you long for Sergeant Death to bellow in his ear and tell him to get a haircut. “The funeral-baked meats,” droned Hamlet, “did coldly furnish forth the marriage tables.” The false emphasis made “coldly” a mere adverb modifying “furnish.” According to Shakespeare, “coldly” is doing service for a whole clause: “when they were cold.” He might have been wise to put a comma on either side of the word, in order to tell the actors and producers of the benightedly enlightened future that something precise was meant. Properly isolated, the word tells us that the funeral was followed so closely by the marriage (“hard upon” as Horatio puts it) that the hot meat of the first event was eaten cold at the second: desecration as household economics. Hammered, the word tells us nothing except that the actor won’t listen to advice, or that the director, with his thoughts on the décor, is too preoccupied to give it. (More charitably, one should allow for the likelihood that Peter Hall, a keen student of clear speech, told Finney the right way to say the line, but that Finney forgot.)

The notion that there is something spontaneous about an actor who tramples Shakespeare’s grammar and syntax could have arisen only from the assumption that Shakespeare himself thought them peripheral to expression. There could be no greater mistake. An individual style can emerge only from firmly grasped universal principles, even if great writers themselves sometimes try to convince us of the opposite. Riled by pedantic reviewers in search of a solecism, Proust said that there was no correctness this side of originality. But he would never have countenanced the suggestion that there could be any originality without a preliminary grammar. The only question is about the best way of acquiring it: by prescription or by example? Shakespeare probably learned it at school. Stratford Grammar School certainly taught him the parts of speech: we know that from the way he makes Jack Cade threaten death to anyone who claims to know the difference between a verb and a noun. But Shakespeare might equally have learned it from his regular reading of the current English translations of Plutarch and Montaigne, although he would have needed an unusual capacity to transform passive into active knowledge. In the light of what else he could do, there is no reason not to grant him that, but a more likely explanation is that he mastered the rudiments in the classroom and then rapidly built on them through what he read: internal evidence from the plays and poems suggests a working knowledge of at least three languages.

Writers don’t read just for the story: they read for the way the story is written, and the way the sentences are put together is the information that sticks. It helps, however, to have been taught in the first place what a sentence is: something that conveys information only by the rules it keeps. Grammar is a mechanism for meaning one thing at a time. Without it, you can’t even manage to be deliberately ambiguous, although to be ambiguous by accident is a result all too easily attained.