January 8, 2010


Gómez Dávila placed seven quotations at the beginning of the first volume of Escolios a un Texto Implícito as epigraphs to serve as a hermeneutical key for his readers. These epigraphs can be found in the left sidebar. Gómez Dávila, however, left all these quotations in their original languages. What follow, then, are translations of the epigraphs (in bold print), some information about their original context, and a brief explanation of their relevance to the Escolios.

* * * 1 * * *

The first quotation comes from Part II, Chapter 8 of Gustave Flaubert’s Madame Bovary. This chapter focuses primarily on the beginning of the affair between Emma and Rodolphe, who attend an agricultural show together. Also attending the show is the local chemist, the town’s most ardent atheist. At the show, a local dignitary gives away many prizes, including a silver medal, worth 25 francs, to an old woman who has worked 54 years at the same farm. This woman, apparently hard of hearing and perhaps not all that bright, has to have her name called many times before she finally approaches the stage to accept the award.

Then, when she had her medal, she looked at it, and a smile of beatitude spread over her face; and as she walked away they could hear her muttering “I’ll give it to our cure up home, to say some masses for me!”

“What fanaticism!” exclaimed the chemist, leaning across to the notary.

The translation is by Eleanor Marx-Aveling.

Gómez Dávila shows his courage and his sense of humor here. He knows how his writings will come across to most people, but he is not afraid of being called a fanatical Catholic. Not only that, but he even laughs at being called a fanatic, by associating himself with the old lady. Perhaps this excerpt from Madame Bovary was the inspiration for this aphorism: “My convictions are the same as those of an old woman praying in the corner of a church.”

* * * 2 * * *

The second quotation comes from Part II, Chapter 19 of Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes (1547-1616). In this chapter, Don Quixote, the knight-errant of La Mancha, discusses with his squire, Sancho Panza, the possibility of coming to the rescue of the dashing young swordsman Basilio, whose lady love, the fair Quiteria, is about to be married off to Camacho, the son of a wealthy farmer.

Sancho proceeds to give his opinion, rattling off, in his inimitable way, a number of proverbs. This upsets Don Quixote:

“When are you going to stop, Sancho, a plague on you?” said Don Quixote. “When you begin to string together your proverbs and tales, only Judas himself would understand you—may he seize you. Tell me, blockhead, what do you know about spokes, or wheels, or anything else?”

Well, if you don’t understand me,” rejoined Sancho, “it’s no wonder that my opinions are taken for nonsense. But no matter; I understand myself, and I know that I haven’t said many foolish things in my comments, only your worship is always an incensory of my sayings and even of my doings.”

Censor, you should say,” replied Don Quixote, “and not incensory; confound you for a perverter of good language.”

The translation is by Walter Starkie in Cervantes, Don Quixote (New York: Signet Classics, 1964), pp. 660-661.

This humorous quotation from Don Quixote, in which Gómez Dávila identifies himself with Sancho Panza, lends an ironic tone to the Escolios from the outset. Already, Gómez Dávila warns his readers that the book they are about to read is deeply personal, and not easily understood even by those who know the author—even though the only way to understand the book is to know the author. Gómez Dávila begins his book with a discreet smile.

* * * 3 * * *

Diogenes Laërtius was a Greek writer who probably lived in the first half of the third century A.D. He is known to the modern world only as the author of The Lives and Opinions of Eminent Philosophers, a collection of sayings and anecdotes.

The quotation here comes from Diogenes’ life of the Stoic philosopher Herillus, whose books are described (in my very literal translation) as

few-lined, yet full of power.

There are two translations of Diogenes Laërtius available in the public domain. The first, by Charles Duke Yonge (1853), gives the full sentence—Gómez Dávila omitted the first part—as:

His books contain but few lines, but they are full of power.

The second translation, by Robert Drew Hicks (1925), is available in the Loeb Classical Library; it renders the sentence, a little more freely, as:

His writings, though they do not occupy much space, are full of vigor.

An online version of the Greek text may be found here.

This is as good a description as any of Gómez Dávila’s Escolios. Though there are plenty of lines in his books, he actually did not write very much for a man who spent most of his life in his library. Indeed, many of the aphorisms in the Escolios are not even original: some are simply re-workings of observations from Notas and Textos I or slightly different formulations of aphorisms found elsewhere among the Escolios, while others are echoes or paraphrases of authors he read. This should not shock the reader. Rather, as Gómez Dávila himself said, he did not seek originality but only wanted to write a “circular book.” It is precisely this circularity and this brevity that give his prose such power.

* * * 4 * * *

Shakespeare requires neither introduction nor translation.

The two lines here come from his 1594 narrative poem The Rape of Lucrece, ll. 1427-8. The preceding lines, however, are also of interest, because they too are suggestive of Gómez Dávila’s allusive style:

For much imaginary work was there;
Conceit deceitful, so compact, so kind,
That for Achilles’ image stood his spear
Griped in an armed hand; himself, behind
Was left unseen, save to the eye of mind:
A hand, a foot, a leg, a head,
Stood for the whole to be imagined.

This quotation from Shakespeare refers to Gómez Dávila’s decision to write aphorisms rather than a more systematic treatise. Franco Volpi cites this epigraph in explaining that “the implicit text is the limit toward which Gómez Dávila’s propositions regress.” In further support of this statement, Volpi quotes this passage from Notas (Bogotá: Villegas Editores, 2003), p. 51, in which Gómez Dávila identifies himself with “the mediocre man”:

Diaries, notes, sketches—they betray every great spirit who makes use of them, for by demanding little of him they do not allow him to display his gifts, nor his exceptional virtues; on the other hand, like clever accomplices, they help the mediocre man who employs them. They help him because they suggest an ideal prolongation, a fictitious work that does not accompany them.

* * * 5 * * *

French poet Paul Valéry (1871-1945) is the source of the fifth epigraph. These are the last five lines of “Le Sylphe” (“The Sylph”), originally published by Valéry in Charmes (1922).

The poem is not long—it is a short-lined sonnet in form. According to David Paul, it is a “puzzle-poem [constructed] around the familiar expression ‘Ni vu ni connu,’ challenging the reader to find something, as in ‘hide and seek.’” Peter Dale explains that it has been interpreted to be a poem “on the wayward nature of inspiration,” and may also be regarded as a “gentle mockery of Valéry’s exegetes.”

Here are two translations of the entire poem. The first translation is by David Paul, in the first volume of The Collected Works of Paul Valéry (ed. Jackson Mathews) (Princeton University Press, 1956), p. 179:

Nor seen nor known
I am the perfume
Alive, dead and gone
In the wind as it comes!

Nor seen nor known,
Genius or chance?
The moment I’m come,
The task is done!

Nor read, nor divined?
To the keenest minds
What hints of illusions!

Nor seen nor known,
A bare breast glimpsed
Between gown and gown!

The second is by Peter Dale, in Charms and Other Pieces (London: Anvil Press Poetry, 2007), p. 99:

Not seen, nor known,
I’m perfume spread
Living and dead
By the wind blown!

Not seen, nor known,
Hazard or feat:
Hardly yet shown
The task’s complete!

Unread, undelved?
In best minds shelved
What errors certs!

Not known, not seen,
Time bare breasts lean
Between two shirts!

A complete copy of the poem (in French) may be found here.

These lines from “The Sylph” combine nicely two themes in Gómez Dávila’s thought. First, as mentioned above, Valéry’s concern with the nature of inspiration, presented here in a somewhat mysterious poem, accords quite well with Gómez Dávila’s own thoughts on the nature of knowledge and truth, especially his opposition to rationalism. He celebrates “hints of illusions,” though that is hardly surprising for a thinker who rejoices in the insolubility of man’s fundamental problems. Second, the final lines—“a bare breast glimpsed/between gown and gown”—give a hint of the “the discreet and comfortable sensuality” of authentic humanism that runs throughout Gómez Dávila’s Escolios.

* * * 6* * *

Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900), like many writers, felt that his critics, and even his admirers, did not actually understand him. This is what he complains about in his January 8, 1888, letter to Georg Brandes, the Danish intellectual who “discovered” Nietzsche and first began to spread word of him in Scandinavia.

That what is involved here is the extended logic of a very definite philosophical sensibility and not a jumble of a hundred random paradoxes and heterodoxies—none of that has dawned, I believe, on even my most sympathetic readers.

The complete letter (in German) may be read here.

This sentence from Nietzsche warns the reader to be careful before drawing any conclusions from individual aphorisms. While many individual aphorisms are indeed eminently quotable, there is a danger in simply using the Escolios as an arsenal of quotations for use in arguments. The reader must view Gómez Dávila’s “paradoxes and heterodoxies” in their proper context; when he does this, the individual aphorisms, like the dots of color in a pointillist painting, will come together before his eyes, and he will gain a clearer picture of Gómez Dávila’s own “very definite philosophical sensibility.” To fully understand his sensibility, though, the reader must also try to enter into his experiences: “To express ideas is easy, but it is almost impossible to communicate the context that makes them intelligible. Whoever does not share our experiences deceives himself when he believes he understands us” (Escolios a un Texto Implícito II, p. 44).

Any reader who has trouble discerning from the Escolios what this philosophical sensibility might be is encouraged to read Textos I (1959). This early work is a collection of essays that bring together in essays some of the ideas found scattered throughout the Escolios.

* * * 7 * * *

Francesco Petrarca (1304-1374), or Petrarch as he is more commonly known in English, was an Italian writer, and is usually considered the first of the Renaissance humanists. Though he is most often remembered today for the sonnets he composed for Laura in Italian, he is also noteworthy for having cultivated a more classical Latinity than was usual in the Middle Ages. This style is preserved in the many letters he wrote, both to actual friends, as well as to famous individuals from history, such as Cicero, whose prose style he imitated and whose own letters he cherished.

In the seventh letter in Book XIX of his Epistolae de Rebus Familiaribus, Petrarch explains to his friend that he prefers the night to the day because, whereas the day only brings worries, the night brings silence. He ends the letter with an exhortation to himself to seek interior peace, and to ask for it from the Lord. Petrarch also makes this personal observation, which Gómez Dávila applies to himself:

And you wonder that few men like me, even though I only get along with a few men—I who perceive almost everything differently than does the crowd and who always consider the right path to be the one that is as far as possible from the crowd.

My thanks go out to Michael Gilleland, who besides checking the above translation kindly supplied me with his own:

And you wonder that I please few—for me, there is agreement with few; to me, almost everything appears differently than it does to the crowd; I always consider that entirely the right path which is most distant from the crowd.

The complete letter (in Latin) may be found here.

Petrarch’s remarks about his tendency to flee society remind the reader that Gómez Dávila composed his aphorisms in silence and solitude, which are also necessary for the reader who desires to understand them; distance from the crowd (vulgus in Latin) is essential.

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