January 8, 2010

The Disenchanted World

Note: This is a translation of a review by Doja Hacker of Till Kinzel's book Nicolás Gómez Dávila: Parteigänger verlorener Sachen ("Nicolás Gómez Dávila: Partisan of Lost Causes"). The review originally appeared in the February 6, 2006, edition of Der Spiegel. Incidentally, this is the article that first piqued my interest in Gómez Dávila, though I must say I now disagree with it on a few points.

The Colombian aphorist is being discovered in Europe as a new Nietzsche. The reactionary thinker is regarded by some as a genius, but as an intolerable elitist by others.

His sentences could not be any shorter: "The partisans of a cause, as a rule, are the best arguments against it." Or: "The idea of the free development of personality seems excellent, as long as one does not meet someone whose personality has developed freely."

These sentences come from a man who for his entire life never made any particular effort to make them better known. It was enough for him to clarify matters for himself.

When Vienna publisher Peter Weiss traveled to Bogotá in 1992 to meet Nicolás Gómez Dávila and negotiate with him over the rights to his works, he was all politeness, but also rather skeptical. But, in the library in which Gómez Dávila spent almost his entire life, Weiss was able to convice him. Weiss obtained the rights on the condition that he publish his works in their entirety. It was a promise Gómez Dávila would not see fulfilled. He died in 1994 at the age of 80.

In the 1990s, Gómez Dávila's aphorisms circulated among only a few conservative thinkers; now his collected attacks on the disenchanted world are finding ever more readers. At the end of 2003, a first introduction to his work appeared, which puts him in the same company as Nietzsche and Schopenhauer. The Berlin publishing house of Matthes & Seitz recently issued a translation of Notas, which originally appeared in 1954 in a private edition. And Escolios, only selections of which have been available [in German] until now, should appear this fall in an unabridged edition for the first time.

Apparently, every reader finds in this author what he is looking for. The small group of those who have been interested in Gómez Dávila for some time now is, at least at first glance, not exactly homogeneous: two playwrights from East and West Germany, Heiner Müller and Botho Strauss, the Berlin writer Wolfgang Hilbig, and Martin Mosebach, a devout Catholic living in Frankfurt. But Gómez Dávila also finds acclaim among a very different milieu: the German monarchist group Monarchieliga adorns their homepage with quotations from Gómez Dávila's works.

And his work is very quotable, since it consists almost entirely of one-to-four-line sentences, which their author called "annotations on the margins of an implicit text," an opus magnum that has disintegrated into glosses. Gómez Dávila himself said that he worked half his life an his notes, until only the essence remained: "The writer who has not tortured his sentences tortures his reader."

Gómez Dávila's apodictic style does not offer the present age any constructive criticism--he rejects it out of hand. His aphorisms are characterized by an aesthetic and religious disgust with the transformation of man into a consumer: a metamorphosis which Gómez Dávila saw driven by the western democracies as well as by Communism, which only strove "to make infinite consumption possible." But Communism, in case there is any doubt, is even worse than democracy, since it does not leave intact any upper class in society to orient the rest of society: "The police force is the only social structure in the classless society." And the rage continues in sentences expressing the conviction that in democratic times "abuse of authority and bribery are the last refuges of freedom" for the elite. These formulas must have pleased Heiner Müller. "The class enemy reaches for the most devilish weapons," he remarked in a dedication to Gómez Dávila, closing, "But still: I salute you from across the trench!"

The aesthete Gómez Dávila is horrified wherever he looks. Modern metropolises he describes as "disease" and "garbage." And culture does not offer him any way out, since "culture will never occupy the worker's leisure time because culture is merely the man of leisure's work." So long as culture can be said to exist at all. What Gómez Dávila understands by the term culture--education, knowledge of antiquity--has long been frowned on by society. "Vulgar entertainments," he complained, "are the only ones for which one need not apologize." Modernity has above all "fought for man's right to puke in public."

He himself stayed away from such entertainment. He did not subscribe to a newspaper, and there certainly was no television in his home. To make up for this, Don Colacho, as his friends called him, invited his friends to dine at home with him on Sundays, in haute-bourgeois fashion. The other days of the week he spent in his library, with nearly 30,000 volumes, and sometimes at the Bogotá Jockey Club, whose galant chivalrousness he enjoyed--until it nearly ended in disaster for him. While attempting to light a cigarre while in the saddle, his horse balked and bolted. He was thrown and suffered complicated fractures, which later made it hard for him to walk.

In any event, he accepted his libary alone as his homeland. "I never again cared where I lived after I saw the wide open fields of my childhood covered with industrial and human garbage." Rural life for him was a value in itself, and he lamented its disappearance with no regard to the social situation.

Of Europe he had seen enough after a trip of several months with his wife in 1949: it was ready for a future as a "combination bordello, dungeon, and circus."

The reason for this reluctance to travel lies in his childhood. His parents tore up his roots when he was young. When he reached school age, they moved to Paris so that he could receive a better education. There he attended a school run by Benedictines, until he was diagnosed with pneumonia. For two years he could not leave his bed.

As a 23 year old, he returned to his parents' home on the edge of Bogotá, for a life as a private scholar. He did not want to get mixed up in anything, least of all in politics: In 1958, after the end of the military dictatorship, he declined a position as a presidental adviser, just as in 1974 he rejected an offer to become Colombia's embassador in London.

Because Gómez Dávila wanted to be read for his diagnosis of the times, and not as the son of an industrialist with no money worries, he invented for himself the mythical mask of the "reactionary"--like Ernst Jünger's "anarchist," less of a political definition of himself than a synonym for one who views things from the outside, with the tendency to turn his back on the smoldering wreckage of modernity quickly and painlessly: "The feminists are ridiculous; the anti-feminists are vulgar."

His sharp and uncompromising style is often witty: "Whatever is labeled 'for adults,' is not meant for adults." Never has there been a more elegant mockery of pornography. And ironically he confesses of himself: "My convictions are the same as those of an old woman mumbling her prayers in the corner of a church." The German titles of his works would have appealed to him: "The Last to Hold the Fort," "Solitude," "Notes of a Conquered Man." They describe well the advice he gives the reactionary, "to be a passenger who suffers shipwreck with dignity."

There are also proposals which one does not want to see realized: "In a venerable university the mere mention of contemporary problems should be forbidden."

Botho Strauss especially feared the publication of such sentences. However, in a letter to Martin Mosebach, he said that he did not see that it was necessarily desirable to spread these works. But he then revised this opinion: "And yet, I would like this one and only convincing voice of sharp-witted faith and anti-modernity in our days to be heard." That chance is now here.

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