Apocryphal thinking

Sometimes I get depressed by all the over-educated people in the world who seem to regard the expression of strong convictions as a mark of poor breeding. At such times I like to re-read this poem by the great Spanish poet Antonio Machado (1875-1939). In particular, the lines:

y pedantones al paño
que miran, callan y piensan
que saben, porque no beben
el vino de las tabernas.

Mala gente que camina
y va apestando la tierra . . .

(and pedants lounging about in their bathrobes
who look on, say nothing, and think
they know, because they don’t drink
in the ordinary bars.

Foul people who go all around the earth
spreading their stink . . . )

Machado lived most of his life in the provinces, employed as a high school French teacher; his poems and prose were not fully appreciated until after his death. The one and only love of his life had a first name eerily reminiscent of Poe’s “rare and radiant maiden”: Leonor Izquierdo. He married her when she was 16 and he 34; she died two years later of consumption. He never remarried. He died one month after fleeing into France ahead of the fascists.

Machado would’ve made a great blogger. His “apocryphal professor,” Juan de Mairena, served as Machado’s alter ego for a nearly endless stream of commentaries on literature, culture, philosophy and politics. He told his students that

We live in an essentially apocryphal world, a cosmos or poem of our own thinking, ordered and structured on undemonstrable suppositions postulated by reason, which we have come to call principles of logical discourse. It is these principles, compacted and synthesized into a principle of identity, that constitute the master supposition of them all: that all things, by the mere fact of their being thought immutable, are anchored forever, as it were, in the river of Heraclitus. The apocryphal character of our world is proved by the existence of logic – our need to put our thinking in accord with itself, to compel it in a sense to see nothing but the supposititious or its postulates, to the exclusion of all other things. In a word, the fact that our whole world is founded on a predicate which might well be erroneous is either dreadful or comforting, depending on the eye of the beholder.

That’s from the Ben Belitt translation of Juan de Mairena (University of California Press, 1963), the only edition I have. (Though Belitt is an execrable translator of poetry – his Neruda volumes for Grove Press are among the few books I would advocate burning – I don’t suppose he can do as much damage to prose.)

Machado maintains a light-hearted mood throughout, in accordance with Mairena’s stated belief that solemn lyricism should be saved for poetry. Last night as I was re-reading these essays, I was struck by how closely Mairena’s views approximate my own. Evidently I had the same reaction on previous readings, because the margins are filled with notes in my own hand – something that, as a librarian’s son, I almost never do to my books. (I guess I must’ve figured it was O.K. to deface a Ben Belitt translation.) The following paragraphs, for example, express a thought I’ve often entertained:

Blasphemy is part and parcel of all popular religion. Beware of the community in which blasphemy does not exist: underneath, atheism runs rampant. Proscribe it with punitive laws as drastic as you please and you will poison the heart of a people and turn their dialogue with divinity into a fraud. Will the God who reads all human hearts allow Himself to be so swindled? He would sooner forgive the professed heretic – never doubt it! – than the latent desecration of the hypocrite who sins in his soul – or more hypocritically still, subverts his blasphemy into prayer.
Blasphemy is more than mere ‘folklore,’ as my teacher Abel Martín used to maintain. In any duly constituted faculty of theology, a chair of blasphemy – in preparation for the doctorate, of course – would be indispensable: occupied by the Devil himself, if possible.

The book is concerned above all else with pedagogy. Machado not only invented an idealized professor; he had him speculate in some detail about what shape an ideal institution of learning might take.

Juan de Mairena had long cherished the idea of founding on his native soil a popular school of wisdom. He abandoned the project only with the death of his teacher, for whom he had destined the chair of poetics and metaphysics. The chair of sophistry he had reserved for himself. . . .

Such a school would flourish in Spain, needless to say, only if there were teachers capable of implementing those aims – and nowhere more so than in Andalusia, where man has not yet been debased by a perverse mystique of hard work, or rather, a feverish pursuit of money for purchasing pleasures and material satisfactions in exchange for muscular exhaustion. . . .

Ours would be a Delphic order of aphorism translated into the vulgate of the Romance languages in suasive rather than categorical terms: “It behooves thee to strive after . . . ” And we would add: “Let no one enter here who presumes to know anything about anything” – not even geometry, which we would probably study as an essentially inexact science. For the keystone of our school, with its two founding chairs like the two blades of a single shears – the chairs of sophistry and metaphysics – would be to reveal to a people, namely, the folk of our native soil, the whole context of their possible thought, the length and breadth of those vast zones where the spirit is alternately illumined and darkened; to induce them to re-contemplate the already contemplated, to un-know the already known and doubt what they already hold in doubt: for that is the only way we can begin to believe in anything.”

I had planned to leave you with that thought, but I just found one more paragraph that perfectly sums up my attitude toward my own sophistry. Perhaps I should append this quote to the “Disclaimer” I wrote last week:

Let me repeat what I have so often told you in the past: always take me with a grain of salt; I have no stock of truths to reveal to you. Nor would I have you assume that my purpose as a teacher is to induce you to mistrust your own thinking. I prefer, rather, to lay bare the mistrust which I have for my own. Disregard the air of conviction I frequently employ with you, which is only a rhetorical or grammatical gambit of language, and my somewhat disrespectful and cavalier manner in alluding from time to time to the great minds of the past. They are only the peevish affectations of a doddering orator in the most provincial sense of the word. Give them a deaf ear.

Hear, hear!

A search of the web doesn’t turn up more than a few pages of select quotes from the profesor apócrifo. There is a blog that purports to contain new thoughts of Juan de Mairena, but it seems more dedicated to math and logic problems than to apophatic sophistry in the spirit of Machado.

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