Brazilian avant-garde: the epic of Haroldo de Campos
Epic poetry seduces Haroldo de Campos as a translator and as a poet. Is translation a betrayal? That is a widespread opinion. Can a betrayal become a virtue? That is the firm position of Haroldo de Campos. Despising restrictions made to translation, he translates systematically many years since. He selects only creative texts because according to him translating is transcreating. Faithful to his decision to translate only what pleases him, he rarely translates entire works. After his successful translations of Ezra Pound, Joyce, Mallarmé, Maiakovski, Goethe, Heraclitus, Dante, Homer and Octavio Paz, he risks translating the Bible, indeed not the whole Bible, but only the parts which interest him.
The epic shade of many biblical passages attracts Haroldo. He translates the forth verse of the second chapter of Genesis this way:
Esta a gesta do céufogoágua / e da terra /
enquanto eram criados ///
No dia / de os fazer / Ele-O Nome-Deus /
terra e céufogoágua
This is the gesta of the heavenfireearth / and of the earth
while they where created ///
The day / He-The Name-God / made them
earth and heavenfirewater.
In the King James´ Bible this same passage reads thus: These are the generations of the heavens and of the earth when they were created, in the day the Lord God made the earth and the heavens,
Haroldo de Campos calls our attention to the strangeness of the Hebrew. Since it is a Semitic language, one understands that it offers greater difficulties to the translator than Greek, which belongs to the Indo-European linguistic group. Nevertheless, difficulties never cause any trouble to Haroldos preferences. On the contrary, strangeness gives him the opportunity to make strong translations, origin of new resources for the users of the Portuguese language. Instead of heaven, the translation of shamaym, Haroldo gives us fireearth, or, as here, heavenfireearth. He justifies the neologism with the etymology of the Hebrew word, composed of esh (fire) and maym (water). That is one of his reasons. The other one is textual crossing. The author reminds us of the cosmological metaphors cultivated by modern physics, the universe birth through a hot explosion, for example. The term gesta, a translation of the Hebrew noun toldoth, remembers medieval tales or epic narratives in general. This connotation is not encouraged by the usual translations which interpret toldoth as generation. He yet presents another reason for his choice, a merely acoustic one : esTA a gesTA, in Portuguese. The emphasis is thus dislodged from the original text to the effects it might produce.
The importance given by Haroldo de Campos to the signifiers reduces the signified to nothing as it becomes apparent in his translation of the second verse of Ecclesiastics:
Nevoa de nadas / disse O-que-Sabe//
névoa de nadas / tudo névoa-nada.
Mist of nothingness / said He-Who-Knows
mist of nothingnesses/ all mist-nothing.
Haroldo stresses the opposition synchrony/diachrony in the notes which we find at the end of his recreation. Nietzsche and the avant-garde delimit the realm of synchrony. Mist of nothingness corresponds to vanitas vanitatum of Ieronimus translation and to vanity of vanities of modern translations. Orthodox interpretations, taking vanity of vanities for an opposition to eternity, moved without conflict in the gloomy atmosphere of Ecclesiastics. The translation mist of nothingness troubles. Haroldo touches an ample unrest context which discloses itself in Pindar, in modern and in ancient skeptics, in Calderón de la Barca. Ecclesiastics, translated by Haroldo de Campos, tastes of mannerist and of avant-garde rebellion. Haroldos comentaries, juxtaposing conflicting interpretations, afford and amazing struggle of interpretations. While sense dissolves in the mist, it lets a skeleton of signifiers which say everything and therefore, nothing. Mist of nothingness opens abysses under our feet.
Haroldos attitude doesnt change when he approaches the first book of the Iliad in his book Menis, a ira de Aquiles (Menis, the Wreath of Achilles). His prior choices let us suppose that it was nothingness that attracted him to the first book of the poem where the Achaeans struggle in vain to overcome the unconquerable walls of Troy. The shadows which cover the book already appear in the opening verses where we read that the souls of many heroes were sent to the kingdom of the death. Haroldo de Campos stretches the devastating emptiness suggested by Homer in his careful translation of the verse 231:
Devora-Povo! Rei dos Danaos? Rei de nada.
People devourer! King of the Danaans? King of nothing.
This words, which appear among the insults thrown by Achilles against Agamemnon could be translated by one whose attention is not directed to the material aspect of the words this way: People explorer, you govern worthless men. But Haroldo de Campos, for whom poetry is chiefly sound, lays stress, based on Hellenists, on the similarity between outidanoisin (worthless men) and danaoi (Danaans), one of the words used by Homer to designate the attackers of Troy. In the word nada (nothing) the first two syllables of Danaos (Danaans) reappear inverted. Haroldo, pretending to save with his translation the resemblance between the noun and the adjective, really succeeds but he introduces a concept absent in this verse. The expression king of nothing" is not found anywhere in the Homeric poems.
The translation of Haroldo de Campos reveals research and is inventive. The reader enters a festival of sounds. Haroldo underlines that the task of a translator of a Greek text is to hellenize the Portuguese language, rejecting the efforts of other translators who try to adapt the foreign language to the requirements of the language into which one translates. One must not hope, however, that the translator could make us jump into the Greek world of the eighth century b. C. Homer shows strong characteristics of oral poetry, while Haroldo de Campos translation carries the marks of written poetry. What belonged to the collective resources of the chanters results in a set of erudite findings in Haroldos translation. An attentive reading reveals an abundance of notions related to nothingness in Haroldos Iliad. Neither Homer, however, nor Greek literature in general know the concept of nothing in the sense Haroldo and Derrida employ it. The absolute nothing - Haroldo knows it- was developed by biblical exegesis and was carried to its ultimate consequences by contemporaneous nihilism, including God, world and man. Haroldo displays a hellenized translation with a strong modern accent. Is it an error? Not at all. We observe what can hardly be avoided. Every translation shows the marks of its time. It would be an error to see in Haroldo a new Homer. But that would be a mistake of the receivers not of Haroldo himself who enriches the translations of Homer. We only regret that Haroldo has not the intention to translate the whole Iliad. Would he do it, he would give us many hours of pleasure and would oblige us to reflect.
Let us pass from the epic translations to the epic production of Haroldo de Campos. Signantia quasi coelum is a cosmogonic poem. Signantia comes from signans - one who signals. The neuter plural signantia means things that signal, or things that produce sings. The Latin title alludes to medieval thinking inverting it. In Middle Ages conception, matter was determined (signatio) by form, while in Haroldo´s poem matter determines matter. If we choose to understand this determination, we have to go back to the stoics following Gilles Deleuze or we must reflect on Chinese thinking with Haroldo de Campos. China clarifies the connotations of heaven (coelum) in Haroldo´s poem. Haroldo transcribes in his book Ideograma (Ideogram) an essay written by the Chinese thinker Chang Tung-Sun which points out the peculiarities of heaven in Chinese conceptions. The Chinese don't reflect on the nature of the heaven. For them, there were no gods prior to the heaven. They inquire heaven for orientation. The heaven shows them how to avoid misfortune. Quasi means like. We could render the title by Things make signals as the heaven, understanding it as the transfer of the creative power from the heaven to the things. If our interpretation is correct, things derive their creative power from themselves. Let us proceed oriented by this hypothesis.
The first part of the poem also called Signantia quasi coelum shows, in the original language, a sentence written by Novalis: "Das Paradies ist gleichsam über die ganze Erde verstreut - und daher so unkentlich geworden." "Paradise is spread all over the world, and therefore it became unknown." Haroldo wants us to see the coincidence of the Chinese and the romantic conceptions in a montage process which permits to create a new reality with fragments brought together from different parts. He follows thus Ezra Pound´s project who aimed at the unity of a fragmented world.
The poem of Haroldo de Campos was published in 1979. Then years before, in 1966, Michel Foucault wrote Les mots et les choses (Words and Things), an essay which treats of the relationship between signs and referents. For Foucault, resemblance oriented western knowledge until the end of the sixteenth century. Earth reflected the sky, literature reflected life. Man occupied a privileged position because he was conceived as a mirror of the world. In the poem of Haroldo, notwithstanding, similarity doesn´t represent any privilege for the man. In Signantia quasi coelum the murder of the man, proclaimed by Foucault, has already happened.
Signantia quasi coelum opens as a symphony of the uni/verse (uni/verso). Universe and verse appear identified. As the verse, the universe is a poem written by itself. Be rutilant/last (rútilo/último) the final brightness but with such an intensity that it illuminates everything. The opening splendor and the closing splendor are the same, the primeval explosion vibrates in the stars and in the tinkles of the bells. The proem anticipated events in the ancient epopee because the teller dominated the further stages. The chord of an explosion vibrates now where the proem was. The blue of the sky rounds over the temple open to those who breathe and to those who do not breathe. What kind of watches, what kind of calendar could measure universal time? Light, architecture and sound compose together the universal poem. The universal links of the poem eclipse any authorial authority.
Phanopoeia precedes logopoeia, things appear before being named by a word. Art produces itself spontaneously. The sun suns (se ensolara), it makes itself sun. During thousands of years the fish digs its image into the stone. Fossils are self-made portraits. Nature´s splendor is a theophany of signs which form texts to be heard, song, touched, tasted, seen, read. The poet, recovering medieval discussion, declares the whole naturing nature (natura naturante, natura naturans) and not the result or an external act (natura naturata). There are signs, but signs of themselves, erection of signs (ereção de signos). Solar writing reigns. The sun writes. The air speaks through the trill of the birds. In opposition to Genesis, it is not the word that produces things, things, on the contrary, produce signs, seeds, semen. Poetic energy dispenses the man. The abilities that operate in man dont distinguish him from the stones which design fishes in their bodies. The genius which from a romantic point of view honored men is now present even in rocks. The stoic seminal discourses (logoi spermatikoi), no doubt, return.
The phallic character which the poem acquires since his first chord Crystal glans (glande de cristal) reminds us Hesiods Theogony. In this Greek poem, Cronus, sensitive to the complains of the Earth, his mother, attacks Uranus, his father, mutilating him. From the amputated organ, fallen in the sea, Aphrodite, the goddess of love, is born, origin of the ordered development of the cosmos. There are evidences that this version is prior to the other one, which we find in Homer, according to whom Aphrodite is a daughter of Zeus. In Homers conception, the generating power comes from the father of gods and men. His endless marriages are a testimony of his creative power. Although Haroldo de Campos pays homage to Homer, he appears as a follower of Cronus, enemy of any power superior to the earth. In Haroldos theophany, after the death of the gods, creative power is given to the nature.
As one who looks through the crystal/ of the time (como quem olha pelo cristal/ do tempo). The poem leads us to concrete objects, not only to those which we are at liberty to touch but also to those which survive suspended in the time as particles of dust in the air. To write on the glass/ sentences of glass (escrever no vidro/ sentenças de vidro). Hermetic texts were written on opaque materials. Interpreters interpret signs recorded on parchment, papyrus, paper. Images reflected in mirrors are there retained. In the place of cheats or mirrors, the poet elects glass to write on. Glass annuls itself as an instrument and favors things as concrete bodies. The poet wants us to consider words as things, things that lead to other things, offered more to the senses than to the intelligence.
The poet speaks of a theophany (teofania). But in context of the poem, theophany cannot be taken as the fundament. How could it be primitive, being a composed word? Primitive is phanos, derived from phanos (light, torch), prior to all beings. Theophany is related to phanopoeia, the poetical process which puts things before our eyes. If we keep in mind that etymologically theos enters the lineage of words which mean light, we are led to the conclusion that theophany is light from light. Brightness generates itself everywhere. Phanos appears in a moment, it is the splendor of the inaugural explosion indefinitely repeated. It shines in the sun, it is light in the lens (luz na lente), it makes the silence sound.
In the second part of the poem, Status viatoris:entrefiguras, the sign breaks its links with things. The sign is reduced to the condition of an instrument manipulated by those who come to the newly discovered territories to make fortune. The poet thus returns to the very beginnings of Brazils history. The strange look cast by traders on things transforms them into merchandise. Scientists search the trees looking for marks of their age. The newcomers, depraving the world from its reality, reduce things to signs in order to decipher them. The value, be it economic or scientific, is placed beyond the concrete things which one touches. The explores choose to know what is hidden behind the mountains. One sea opens the doors to another, one continent leads to another. The hunger to carry, to transfer, to trade is enormous. The market establishes the value in the world changed into merchandise. Nothing competes with merchandise, not even life. The instrumental word takes the place of the inaugural visibility. Waters and territory are covered with signs, signs of other signs in an infinite chain. The bodies retreat, the quest increases, poetry disappears. The symposium of Platos intellectuals who searched the good beyond the clouds originated the symposium of the managers (o simpósio dos gerentes) who departed to enrich beyond the sees. The manager is one who knows, one who establishes values. He interprets desires and the manner to satisfy them. The manager´s discourse reminds the liquorous neon light (a licorosa luz neon). The words, once perfect as the seeds, languish now enchained in instrumental discourses.
Esboço para uma nékuia (Outline for a nekyia) is the title of the third part of the poem. What does nekyia mean? According to Plutarch, nekyia is a magical ceremony through which ghosts were called up and questioned about the future. Nekyia designates also the eleventh book of the Odyssey which tells the descent of Ulysses to the kingdom of the death in order to obtain from Tiresias information about the best way to Ithaca. Ezra Pound got from Homer the suggestion to open his Cantos with a penetration into the realm of death to consult the wisdom of former generations. Haroldo works out his nekyia keeping to the path of his forerunners. The poet links nekyia to those-without-nostrils at the bottom of the first page. Who are they? How are they related to nekyia? Let us investigate. In Avestan, an Indo-European language in which the Avesta was written, a sacred texts collection of Persian Zoroastrian religion, nasu means corps, in Sanskrit nasyati means to perish, to disappear, in Latin neco means to kill. The four terms show a common origin. Poetical imagination induces Haroldo de Campos to include nasus ( nose) in this semantic context, attaching a negative sense to the first syllable of nekyia. Conclusion: those-without-nostrils are the death, that means, we all who dont breathe the air of the paradise. Those-without-nostrils lack air, lack blood, magical products which poetry gives us to live.
Esboços para uma nékuia (Outline for a Nekyia) is the title of the third part of the poem. Were we not reading an outline, our effort to understand a single word were not necessary. Homer, in so far as he carefully explains, requires less attention. He knows that he addresses an audience who may at moments become distracted from his telling, therefore he repeats insistently. When we compare Homers abundance with Haroldos economy, we discover an enormous difference. Writing took the place of oral composition; work took the place of feast. Signantia was written to be heard and read. On top of the opening page of we see I descend (desço) surrounded with words. The descend comes about to reach eventually those-without-nostrils in the isolate neighborhood of death at the end of the empty page
The faceted chaos opens Outline for a Nekyia. The Paradise Lost by Milton had already shown a close relationship between hell and chaos. The faceted chaos sounds new. One facets diamonds, crystals, the world in which we live. Dont the scientists affirm that every chaotic happening, including the clouds, obeys to an organizing system ? In this poem, the faceted chaos, fragments chaotically brought together in life and in lecture experiences receive the same careful attention which lapidarists display while they cut precious stones.
Haroldo leads us to the depths of a hellish landscape where Lethe flows edged with daffodils, symbols life. The waters of that gloomy river, visited by poets of the past, extinguish the memory of those who approach them. Haroldo looks not only for information like Ulysses, but he also shows the poets the paths of life, taking them out of oblivion. Sousândrade, named here, a revolutionary and forgotten last century poet to whom Haroldo dedicated a whole book, is one of them.
The Luciferine lapse (lapso luciferário) makes allusion to the Bible. Lucifer, the light bearer, being cast out of heaven falls into the abyss. The falling Lucifer traverses the poem. Signantia is not a redemption poem, it is a poem of the fall. Who was Lucifer before the fall? While he lived in the brightness, light effaced his personality. Lucifer only appears as an individual being when he falls. As one who falls, he is degraded to the condition of a light bearer, because it doesnt belong him anymore. While he falls, he becomes more and more a being of the shadows. As a luminous splinter of the primordial explosion, Lucifer falls into a falling universe. Lapse is also an undesired error, a writing error. In a lapsing world, remains a lapsing poetry. The poet is Lucifer, a gloomy light-bearer.
The outstanding visibility based on new procedures and the absence of subjectivity follows a tradition which goes back to Homer. Homeric epic tradition crosses that which comes from Dante. Haroldo alludes to Dante and inverts the order of his Divine Comedy, where the traveler starts at the hell the journey which leads him to the brilliant glory of the heaven. Paradise, on the contrary, is the first experience of those who pass through Haroldo´s poem that ends with a descent to the hell. The new order moves the attention from Dante´s metaphysical hopes to this world. Haroldo, who begins where Dante finishes, derives the method of beginning at the end from the Raven by Edgar Allan Poe. Machado de Assis, an earlier Poe´s reader, faces also the problem of the narrative sequence. The deceased narrator of the novel Posthumous Memories of Brás Cubas (Memórias póstumas de Brás Cubas) doesn´t know whether he should tell the story of his life beginning with his birth or with his death, and finally decides to begin with his funeral. The choice comprehends more than technical decisions. Haroldo, placing the hell at the end, opposes messianic hopes present in Brazilian texts since the baroque writings of Antônio Vieira.
The reader should not look for a teller in Signantia in a traditional sense. One finds rather a story in process which counts on the cooperation of the reader. The poet follows a technique apparent in the dodecaphonic music of Webern who proposes chords which are systematically interrupted. An inattentive reading doesn´t perceive the links between elements separated by empty spaces and by fragments of diverse origin. Spaces and words, in former times bound to precise cultural conceptions, now parade free to enter unexpected combinations. The void which scared in the past dominates. Sheherazade spoke to erase silence and death. Few words forming now original constellations cause silence to speak.
Haroldo surrenders again to the seduction of epic poetry in his poem Finismundo, a última viagem. In order to preserve the reference to the Finneganswake by Joyce, we could translate the title of this work, Finisworld, the last voyage. Based on Dante and on studies about him, Haroldo imagines that the desire to search the unknown seas is stronger in Odysseus, the Greek name for the Latin name Ulysses, than the nostalgia for his native land, his wife, and his son. With only one ship and some sailors, Odysseus traverses the forbidden columns of Hercules, dies in the ocean and his dreams with him. He certainly wakes again but in a different way. Haroldo´s hero pushes us to the other revolutionary novel by Joyce, Ulysses. Like Leopold Bloom, the second part of the brief poem presents us an urban hero attached to daily trifles. The awoken Odysseus shows a completely new personality. He approaches Joyce´s Ulysses, but, even less ambitious than Bloom, Haroldo´s urban Odysseus, satisfied of his homely well-being, doesn´t look for a son, he doesn´t even travel through the city. He receives a post card from the paradise and desires no more.
In the veins of the venturer of the first part, flows the blood of Columbus. Like the Genoese navigator, Haroldo´s Odysseus dies without finding the dreamed terrestrial paradise. Finisworld, remembering the mallarmaic Un Coup de dés, brings together fragments of rotten poems. Nothingness devours the strong links which supported the ancient epic poems.
Galaxies, although concluded before Finisworld appeared, is a book born from the wake left by Odysseus´ ship in the sea. Haroldo says that Galaxies initiated as an epic insinuation and finished as an epiphanic insinuation. As insinuation, the work remains uncompleted. Indeed, more than Finisworld, Galaxies points out the shipwreck of the epopee. Memory, plot, characters, myths, verses, chants, the entire epic arsenal, disappear with Odysseus, and emerges a book of essays, the writing about the art of writing, the epiphany of nothing. Instead of a Iliad, we are given a nihiliad (nihilíada), a macaronid (macarronídia). A hero without a project, without inner live, without a name fights against the signs which cover emptiness in quest of the naked body of nothingness, the void page. Instead of a eldorado we have a eldolorous Latin-American faildorado (eldorido feldorado latinoamericano). The rhythm of the book reminds the waves of the sea, which begin again and again without going nowhere. There are no punctuation marks because they would trouble the rhythm, they would breake the movement. Instead of paragraphs, there are streams supported by the insistent employ of the gerund. To write is nothing less than to produce, to translate. One reads in Galaxies that the white is a language which is structured as a language (o branco é uma linguagem que se estrutura como linguagem). This definition is a paraphrases of what Jacques Lacan said about the unconscious. The white, having taken the place of Lacan´s unconscious, cannot possibly be put in the category of stable structures. The language formed by streams comes from a white pregnant of infinite possibilities, dawn of unexpected possibilities.
From Signantia quasi coelum to Galaxies the idea of the constitution of the world has changed. There is no hit any more at an inaugural explosion, origin of the universe. There is no possibility to start at the end, a choice taken for the construction of Signantia, by the reason that there is no end any more. All beginning is beginning again. The beginning would push us to an authorial instance or to an unchaining happening. We are in a play without prelude, interlude or postlude. After the erasing of the cause/effect relationship, we observe phenomena which display their reaches by their proper energy: the snow snows, the night nights, the end ends ( a neve neva, a noite noita, o fim finda). We had in Signantia lost islands in a sea of silence, points which only were connected by the reading experience. In Galaxies the text itself constructs its own connections. The text produces its own textuality, it textualizes.
The stream which moves in Galaxies is not identical to the river of Heraclitus. The thinker of Ephesus required a dry and firm place to reflect on the flow. The demand to reflect produced the fragments. The flow of Galaxies demands the senses, and not reason. Logocentric discourse fragments the whole, placing the flow in abysses which reason cannot attain. In the antilogocentric thinking, the movement of the waves agitates the surface. Galaxies is a book of essays, as the narrator asserts, because nothing is defined. One hears voices which proceed from unknown speakers. No explosion happens or happened behind the words; behind the words silence reigns, the hollow of things.
Nevertheless, we are by no means rendered to an uncontrolled chaos. In despite of the dissolution of the borders, we recognize places and personalities.
The void at the bottom of the poem is not only due to modern nihilism, but reflects also Latin-American poverty contrasting previous Brazilian conceptions of a grandiose future. Conscious of our failures, we are obliged, as poets of the space in which we live, to construct what not yet exists.
Return to the Home Page