January 8, 2010

A Short Life of Nicolás Gómez Dávila

Nicolás Gómez Dávila was born in Cajicá, Colombia (near Bogotá), on May 18, 1913, into a wealthy bourgeois family. When he was six, his family moved to Europe, where they lived for the next seventeen years. During his family’s stay in Europe, young Nicolás would spend most of the year at a school run by Benedictines in Paris, but would often go for his vacations to England. However, during his time in Paris he was beset by a long-lasting illness which confined him to his bed for most of two years. It was during this illness that under the direction of private tutors he learned to read Latin and Greek fluently and to love the classics. His formal education ended at the secondary level.


When Gómez Dávila turned twenty-three, he moved back to Bogotá, and almost immediately upon his return married Emilia Nieto Ramos. According to German writer Martin Mosebach, she was already married when she met Gómez Dávila, and had to obtain an annulment in order to be able to marry him. However their marriage may have started out, it lasted for over fifty years. After the wedding, the young couple moved into the house in Bogotá that was to remain their home for the course of their entire marriage. There they raised three children: two sons and a daughter.


After establishing his household, Gómez Dávila, or “don Colacho” as he became known to his friends, led a life of leisure. Because his own father was for most of his long life able to attend to the family carpet factory, Gómez Dávila only had to manage the business for a short period himself, before in turn passing it on to his son. However, even during the time when he bore primary responsibility for the business, he did not pay excessive attention to it. Mosebach reports that Gómez Dávila generally only visited the office once a week at midday for about ten minutes, in order to tell the business manager to increase profits, before going out to lunch with friends at the Bogotá Jockey Club, where he was an active member, playing polo and even serving as an officer for a while. (He had to give up polo, though, after injuring himself on his horse—he was thrown off while trying to light a cigar.)


Gómez Dávila was in fact a well-connected member of the Bogotá elite. Besides his membership in the Jockey Club, he helped Mario Laserna Pinzón found the University of the Andes in 1948. Furthermore, Gómez Dávila’s advice was sought out by Colombian politicians. In 1958, he declined the offer of a position as an adviser to president Alberto Llera after the downfall of the military government in Colombia. In 1974, he turned down the chance to become the Colombian ambassador at the Court of St. James. Although he was well disposed to both governments, Gómez Dávila had resolved early on in his “career” as a writer to stay out of politics. Although some of his friends were disappointed that he did not accept these offers, they later concluded (according to Mosebach) that he was right to refuse the honors—he would have been a disaster as a practical politician.


Gómez Dávila instead spent most of his life, especially after his polo injury, reading and writing in his library. He was a voracious reader, often staying up well into the night to finish a book. By the end of his life, he had accumulated a library of approximately 30,000 volumes. Indeed, his family had trouble disposing of many of the books because so many appealed primarily to specialized scholarly interests, and because so many were in languages other than Spanish. (Diego Pizano states in this article that Colombia’s Banco de la República has recently decided to acquire the library.) Gómez Dávila, besides learning French, English, Latin, and Greek during his childhood, could read German, Italian, and Portuguese, and was even reportedly learning Danish before his death in order to be able to read Søren Kierkegaard in the original. According to Francisco Pizano, Gómez Dávila regretted that he never succeeded in learning Russian—he started learning it too late in life. In addition to reading, Gómez Dávila enjoyed the company of friends whom he regularly invited to his home for lunch on Sunday afternoons. After the meal, he would retreat into his library with his friends for hours-long, wide-ranging discussions.


The result of all this reading and discussion can be found in our author’s works. Gómez Dávila, however, published these works only very reluctantly during his lifetime. Indeed, his first two works were available only to his family and friends in private editions. In 1954, at the urging of his brother Ignacio, he published Notas (Notes), a collection of aphorisms and short reflections, most no longer than a few paragraphs. In 1959, he published Textos I (Texts I), a collection of essays. The intended second volume never appeared. For nearly twenty years after these hesitant forays into publishing, Gómez Dávila re-worked what he had already produced into the aphorisms which constitute the bulk of his output as an author and for which he is best known. This period of silence ended in 1977 with the publication of two volumes of Escolios a un Texto Implícito (Scholia on the Margin of an Implicit Text). This collection of aphorism was followed in 1986 by two more volumes of Nuevos Escolios a un Texto Implícito (New Scholia on the Margin of an Implicit Text). A final volume of aphorisms was published in 1992 as Sucesivos Escolios a un Texto Implícito (Further Scholia on the Margin of an Implicit Text). Late in life, Gómez Dávila also wrote two shorter pieces. The first, De iure (De jure) was printed in the spring 1988 issue of the Revista del Colegio Mayor de Nuestra Señora del Rosario. His final work, El Reaccionario Auténtico (The Authentic Reactionary) was published posthumously in the spring 1995 issue of the Revista de la Universidad de Antioquia; it is perhaps the most programmatic of his works. None of these works was published commercially, and none was ever printed in any great numbers during his lifetime. Notas, Textos I, and all five volumes of Escolios have recently been made available again by Villegas Editores, a Bogotá publisher. Villegas Editores has also put out a single-volume selection of aphorisms, compiled by Gómez Dávila's daughter, Rosa Emilia Gómez de Restrepo, entitled Escolios a un Texto Implícito: Selección.


Gómez Dávila himself did nothing to attract attention to his work. Indeed, his deliberate choice of obscure publishing houses and tiny printing runs seems almost intended to condemn his works to oblivion. Word of Gómez Dávila, however, began to spread slowly toward the end of his own lifetime. Strangely enough, he became best known not in his native Colombia or in other Spanish-speaking countries, but in the German-speaking world. Philosopher Dietrich von Hidlebrand apparently was the first to make any reference in print in Germany to Gómez Dávila. A few years before his death, German translations of his aphorisms began to appear at the Karolinger Verlag in Vienna. Among the Germans who have professed their admiration of Gómez Dávila are several noted writers, including the late Ernst Jünger, Martin Mosebach, and Botho Strauß. Since his “discovery,” knowledge of his work has spread in other countries in Europe due to the work of a small group of devoted admirers, most especially the late Franco Volpi in Italy. Translations of his works are now also available in French, Italian, and Polish.


Gómez Dávila died in his library on the eve of his 81st birthday, on May 17, 1994.

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