In my last post about Against Professional Secrets by César Vallejo, I explained how in that volume Vallejo offers an unprecedented critique of avant-garde literature. He suggests that European avant-garde literature of the early 20th century suffered from posture and pretense, and that Latin American avant-garde literature from the same period repressed itself by plagiarizing the European schools.
For millennials like me, this is not easy to swallow, since the writers with which Vallejo takes issue form part of the modern cannon. They are writers that we have grown up with and that have formed fundamental ideas that shape our understanding of literature. For anyone who has read César Vallejo’s poetry, the fact that he was so staunchly against the avant-garde is, to say the least, disconcerting, and it inevitably leads us to ask, how can the author of Trilce criticize the avant-garde poets of his time?
On May 7, 1927, Vallejo published a review of the book Ausencias by his compatriot Pablo Abril de Vivero (Variedades No. 1001, Lima). This is the first place where the title Contra el secreto profesional (Against Professional Secrets) appears in print. It is a suspicious review, however, since he dedicates most of his efforts to describing what Abril’s book is not, namely, avant-garde. Rarely do we find Vallejo writing as polemically about literature as he does here. For this reason, I saw it fit to translate and publish the review, if not for your reading pleasure, then at least for our shared disconcertment.
AGAINST PROFESSIONAL SECRETS:
Speaking of Pablo Abril de Vivero
The current generation of America is no less lost than the ones that came before it. The current generation of America is just as rhetorical and devoid of spiritual honesty as the preceding generations that it rejects. I raise my voice and accuse my generation of being unable to create or realize a spirit of its own, made of truth, of life, of healthy and authentic human inspiration. Today I sense a disastrous outcome of my generation, fifteen to twenty years in the making.
I am sure that these young men of today do nothing other than change the labels and names of the same lies and conventions of the men that came before them. The rhetoric of Chocano, for example, reappears and continues, perhaps more inflated and hateful, in the poets that have come after him. Likewise, in Symbolism , America currently borrows and wears the European dress shirt of the so-called “new spirit”, driven by incurable historical ingratitude.
Today, like yesterday, the writers of American produce a borrowed literature that is working out tragically poorly for them. Now more than ever, the aesthetic—if that grotesque and simian nightmare of American writers deserves such a name—lacks a physiognomy of its own. A line from Neruda, from Borges or from Maples Arce is no different than one from Tzara, from Ribemont or from Reverdy. At least in Chocano there was some cheap Americanism in the themes and the names. In today’s writers, not even that.
“Let me make this concrete. The current generation of America has its foundation on the following supports:
1)––New orthography. Deletion of punctuation marks and capital letters (European postulate from Futurism 20 years ago to the Dadaism of 1920).
2)––New calligraphy of a poem. The ability to write up and down like the Tibetans or in a circle or in italics, like kindergarteners; the ability, in the end, to write in any direction, according to the object or emotion which one wishes to suggest graphically in each case. (European postulate, from San Juan de la Cruz and the Benedictines of the XV century to Apollinaire and Beaudouin).
3)––New topics. The radiotelegraph overtakes the moonlight. (European postulate, in Marinetti as in three dimensional synopticism).
4)––New devices for making images. Substitution of comparative and ecstatic alchemy for calculating and dynamic pharmacy of what is called rapport in the poetry d’après guerre. (European postulate, from Mallarmé 20 years ago, to the Surrealism of 1924).
5)––New images. Advent of the unstable and caustic polarity of metaphoric terms, according to the laws that are in systematic opposition to the aesthetic terms of Nature. (European postulate, from the precursor Lautréamont, 50 years ago, to the Cubism of 1914).
6)––New cosmological consciousness of life. Accent on the spirit of human and cosmic unity. The horizon and the distance acquire an unusual meaning, due to the facilities of communication and motion which scientific and industrial progress create. (European postulate, from the stellar trains of Laforgue and the universal fraternity of Hugo to Romain Rolland and Blaise Cendrars).
7)––New political and economic sense. The spirit of the democrat and middle-class man gives up its place to the integral communist spirit. (European postulate, from Tolstoy, 50 years ago, to the Surrealist revolution of our day).
The raw materials and intangible, subtle tones that are not contained in perspectives on or theories of the creative spirit simply do not exist in America. In the aesthetic disciplines that I’ve just enumerated, European poets continue to flourish, over here or over there. Yet in America those very disciplines do not help the writers reveal and realize themselves precisely because they have been imported and practiced by mimicry, because they do not respond to the peculiar necessities of our psychology and environment, and because they have not been conceived by the genuine and terrestrial drive of those who now cultivate them. Endosmosis, with regards to this kind of spiritual movement, far from nourishing, is poisonous.
Therefore, I accuse my generation of propagating the same methods of plagiarism and rhetoric of the prior generations which they themselves reject. What we have here is not a warning in favor of Nationalism, Continentalism or of race. I have always believed that these labels have nothing to do with art and that, when writers are judged in terms of them, one becomes increasingly confused and his uncertainties, ever more uncertain. Take for example Jorge Luis Borges who practices that fervor from Buenos Aires as false and epidermic as is the Latin Americanism of Gabriel Minstral and the Cosmopolitanism that is fashionable among all young Americans of late.
As I write these lines, I invoke a different attitude. There is human tone, a vital and sincere heartbeat that the artist should foster, though it doesn’t matter in which creative disciplines, theories or processes. Find that dry, natural, pure, powerful, eternal emotion and the needs for style, manner and procedure are no longer of any importance. In the current generation of America, no one manages to have that emotion. And I single out those writers of gross plagiarism, because I think that their plagiarism stops them from expressing and realizing themselves humanly and highly. I single them out for their lack of spiritual honesty, because while they imitate foreign aesthetics, they’re aware of their plagiarism and, nonetheless, they practice it, boasting, with insolent rhetoric that they create out of autochthonous inspiration, out of the free and sincere drive of life. Autochthony does not consist in saying that one is autochthonous, but precisely in being so, even when not saying so.
While reading the latest book by Pablo Abril de Vivero, Ausencia, I have reconsidered American culture. Books like this one represent a very significant moment in continental literature. The nobility of these verses can be seen from afar—noble, because, in the middle of 1927, they don’t intend to discover the cure for tuberculosis or even another school of poetry. This book is one of human beauty, of plain speech and of the rare virtue of arousing excitement in the reader. That’s why this is one of the noble books of America. Abril could have tangled up the syntax and the logic thereby joining those masses of quacks who, with this or that avant-garde label, infest all of this environment. (I say masses because today, as opposed to what could or should occur, the majority of writers are revolutionaries. The spiritual aristocracy is there being conservative and the vulgar and status quo is there being or labeling itself avant-garde. Abril could have been more deceiving and written with his eyes closed and he might have impressed the dazzling and highest of circles. If Abril had even written without capital letters and with skyscrapers—this, a quite avant-garde paradox—he surely would have made it big in the galleries.
But the book by Abril, like other sincere books from America, was swept away by the genuine, creative emotion and manages to stay outside of any school, showing the signs of a free and invigorated personality. Ausencias is the work of a profound and simple poet, human and transparent. This is how true creators are characterized: by devoting themselves without anointing themselves and without besmirching anyone else. Artists who, like Abril, have something in their heart to give, do so soundly and naturally. And that is also far from the Avant-garde.
It is out of cowardice or destitution that almost all artists take to the Avant-garde. One fears that the melody may not come to him adequately or one feels that it won’t come at all and, as a last resort, takes refuge in the Avant-garde. This much is certain. In the pseudo new poetry there is plenty of room for every lie but no room at all for oversight. These are the “professional secrets” that Jean Cocteau defends; it’s “the kingdom that is not of this world”, according to Abbot Brémond. The soundness of Paul Souday, his good taste and sacred need for the authentic and human emotion are not welcome there.
However, it is fortunate that every once in a while in America books like Abril’s come out and achieve, between the vanguard Charleston, a well-balanced step, a voice of sanity, a refreshing glow without pretensions. Thanks to these books one is allowed, from time to time, to perceive in America unquestionable silhouettes of great lyrical emotion. The chapter from Ausencias titled “Nocturnos” reaches that high poematic tone.
César Vallejo Vallejo uses the term “romanticismo”, literally Romanticism, but it is a bit of a misnomer in English. Though this is debatable, the names for literary periods are often translated as follows: “Romancismo” (Symbolism), “Modernismo” (Romanticism), Vanguardismo (Avant-garde or High Modernism).