January 8, 2010

A Hermit on the Edge of the Inhabited World

Note: The following article is the introduction Martin Mosebach wrote for a German translation of Notas. The original German can be found at this site.

His house stood in solemn silence; seventy years previously it had attained its final form. A pale, light gray color hung over everything. Only with difficulty can I imagine that its interiors are no more, because they resembled Egyptian burial chambers, which serve their purpose only after the death of their master. Nicolás Gómez Dávila, on the other hand, would not have understood his friends’ regret to see demolished soon after his death the environment which he had once created and then never changed. Numerous anecdotes about a poet’s well-preserved residence would not have suited the ancient, Laconic quality of his work. One could have spoken of his house as of a garment he did not take with him into the grave. And yet it is worthwhile to recall the dull patina and the already historic and impersonal atmosphere of its rooms, in which he moved about as if in the streets and marketplaces of an abandoned city.

On my first visit I saw an Indian woman selling flowers in front of the sandstone Tudor house. I carried no gift, because the old Gómez family friend who accompanied me had warned me that “Don Nicolás eats, drinks, and reads nothing anymore.” There was no way I could bring flowers, said the man—with contempt, as it came across to me. But in this house, far removed from trivial life, fresh flowers would, as a matter of fact, have had an almost shocking effect, as if indecently showing off their vitality. The surrounding villas were protected by walls topped with barbed wire; armed guards crouched in their booths. The Gómez Dávila house was apparently protected only by small window panes, tarnished and mounted in lead. Caravans of busses drove by; across the street was an ultramodern supermarket with a computer monitor above every pile of mangoes. The house was located at a distance from the baroque old town, on a dead straight avenue, along which the new Bogotá spread into the empty land. The Andes plateau, which is becoming increasingly filled with the shacks of immigrant farmers and concrete monstrosities, is often shrouded in a cloud of drizzle. Although the city is situated at a high altitude, it feels like the netherworld there. It is above all mystifying that a Nicolás Gómez Dávila lived here, and not in Neuilly or in the hills of Parioli. But then one asks: Where else but on the edge of the inhabited world could such a man as he have lived?

It is certainly unusual to speak of a writer by describing his rooms; but in the case of Nicolás Gómez Dávila it is helpful, because in these rooms a unity of thought and life is revealed. The great hall was bare. It had a stone floor and a thick, sulfur-yellow rug with a pattern in the middle that resembled a coat of arms but was not; the family had none, despite its lineage and history dating back to the pre-republican period. The only decoration on the walls was the portrait of a monk from the 18th century, very black, a former Spanish viceroy. He had himself driven in a state carriage to a Franciscan friary in order to become a brother there. On the back wall of the hall was a glass door leading to the courtyard; a black Buick from the 1940s was parked there. On the windshield and finish lay a yellowish dust: Barbarossa’s limousine in Kyffhäuser would look like that. Rarely had anyone ever sat down in the parlor. Red and silver upholstery, luxurious furniture in a colonial Colombian baroque style paraded before the walls, Dávila family heirlooms from the slave-trading city of Santa Marta. In the middle stood a boulle table from the Second Empire period, most likely purchased in Paris at the World Fair. A blue-gray Venetian mirror in the shadows reflected a likewise blue-gray Spanish Madonna in the colonial Baroque style, whose vestments formed a pyramid; its little head was dark-skinned, like an Indian. The dining room was furnished with Art Deco pieces, very cool with black varnish and gray pillow covers. It resembled the parlor of a yacht. The man, who after his youth in Paris, would only take a single trip ever again, after World War II to Europe, could feel at mealtimes as if he were on a paque-boat. The dining room was a present from the parents for the newlywed Don Nicolás. The start of the marriage was overshadowed by something dramatic. The 20 year-old, just returned from Paris, had fallen in love with a 21 year-old woman, who was already married—what efforts were necessary to have this marriage annulled in the Colombia of the 1920s, I am not aware of; but the marriage was destined to last sixty years, until Don Nicolás’ death.

I have already described in another place how I was received on my first visit to the Gómez Dávila home: how at first behind the heavy door, fitted with iron nails, nothing moved after I rang the bell, until finally through a small window the round face of a factotum appeared, the door opened, and the entire Gómez Dávila household, arranged by rank and age, formed a sort of line of honor leading up to the old man, who had taken his position in front of the blurry glass door and the dusty Buick. The eighty-year old Gómez Dávila, who had difficulty staying on his feet, stood in the room, as he had probably stood his entire life, slightly bent over, as tall people often do, who are used to bending over for their fellow men. He was dressed in a bathrobe and held a cold cigar between his lips. As he greeted me, it fell to the ground, which gave me the opportunity to fall down at his feet and pick it up. I saw a large skull with an arched forehead, le front bombé, like that of a statue from the late Gothic; his cheeks looked hallow; his lips formed a thin, dark red line. With a gesture of his hand he asked me to enter his library. He did not smile. He employed no conventional greeting, and asked no ritual questions about my journey. I had traveled thousands of miles to him; in the entire continent of South America I was interested only in him, and in Colombia only that which was somehow connected to him would be meaningful to me. Even though originally very few foreign readers had found their way to him, it seemed natural to him that I had come to him and wished to speak with him. The library was a small hall with bookcases from the floor to the ceiling. Books completely covered a long table, and were even piled up underneath the table, as if they were growing out of the floor. We sat down in front of the fireplace; on the ledge was the old dictionary of the Castilian language from the 17th century. In the fireplace stood a small gas heater, which despite the cold was not turned on. Outside there was drizzle, here inside beautiful, dim rooms, which for decades had been in the process of petrifaction. Gómez Dávila could look upon his house as upon a piece of history from the distant past, as upon an age gone forever, with which he could sympathize, without believing he could restore it. He was practiced in the art of not budging from his cold heater and yet not being at home. He did not view himself as a citizen of his country nor as a contemporary. His passion was for history, but not in order to flee out of his own time to rooms filled with spirits—though he did believe that roughly the centuries between Constantine the Great and Dante were a “golden age.” Nevertheless, history was for him not the story of a decline. Creative periods, peaks of culture, dry spells, barbarism, and sterility alternated in unpredictable patterns before his eyes; his path through history led him, over a few high points, but mostly through valleys, quagmires, and abysses. The Christian’s view of history he described in this way: “History begins with a catastrophe, experiences a miracle in the middle, and ends in a cataclysm.” As a result, there was no possibility of tarrying in better times: rather, he searched for a loophole, in order to escape history. In his scorn for the present he delighted in claiming the name “reactionary” for himself alone, because the word enjoyed no prestige in any political camp. But for superficial readers—who of course would not have mattered to him—he created a misunderstanding: the reactionary, according to Marxism, fights against the revolution, in order to turn back the wheel of history But, at such an intention Gómez Dávila would have only shaken his head.

Turning the wheel of history forwards or backwards was for him equally absurd. What he wanted was to leave the historical context altogether. The law of the Holy Roman Empire had for very small, even the smallest, political entities that were not subject to any territorial lord, except to the distant Emperor (and often enough to nobody really), the designation Reichsunmittelbarkeit. It is baffling, when in the 20th century someone in the Andes applies this term to himself, but that is exactly what Gómez Dávila did, in German, which he obviously read effortlessly. Reichsunmittelbarkeit for him was like Ultramontanism, which was imputed to German Catholics in the late 19th century by the Prussians, meaning that they were loyal to a power “beyond the mountains.” His homeland was neither Colombia, which found itself in a subordinate position because of its colonial past, nor the 20th century, which had been barbarized by its dominant economic mentality. He saw himself as a son of the Catholic Church, which he did not regard as simply one of several Christian confessions, but as the great collecting tank of all religions, as the heiress of all paganism, as the still living original religion. That the Church after Vatican II no longer corresponded to this ideal, was more painfully aware to him than to anyone. And so, that much more easily did he decide to emigrate from the present, the analysis of which, of course, helped him to formulate his fragments of an “eternal anthropology” against it.

His mostly younger friends were sorry that I first met Gómez Dávila in the frailty of his old age, no longer the elegant, even dashing horseman and society man of his middle age. But to me it seemed that this life, in which he continued after a grave illness, this sitting in a dressing gown in a cold cave full of books, fitted his work in the highest degree. Since he felt that the time was no longer capable of grasping great intellectual cathedrals, like the Summa of Thomas Aquinas, he treated his polished sentences, compressed as much as possible, as if they were dandelion seeds, to be blown into the world. Few writers have treated their work with less respect. If the books—which were given titles with no thought to their effect on the reader, such as Notes, Texts, Annotations—did not appear in private editions—or rather, did not “appear”—then it was in tiny numbers and by non-commercial publishers. It is one of the comforts in a literary world threatened on many sides by commerce, that this long hidden work has gradually spread through many countries, as if by osmosis and without advertisements or public support. Just like Pavel Florensky, who despite a completely different background and spiritual heritage is closely related to him, Gómez Dávila became known earlier in the German-speaking world than in his home country.

The effort with which Don Nicolás spoke, the pauses between his sentences, were a sort of guide to how to read correctly the seemingly unordered sequence of aphorisms in the three collections of “Annotations” (Escolios). His thought revealed itself in the stillness of his library as a highly compact emergency kit for a stay in the Arctic for an indefinite period of time. During several visits I also saw the old man surrounded by family and friends, and yet I never lost the feeling, that I had encountered a hermit like one of the great desert fathers.

1 comment:

  1. Another relative, perhaps like Pavel Florensky, who immediately comes to mind (though definitely of a "different background and spiritual heritage") is Eric Hoffer, another autodidact best understood through aphorisms.