The Awfulness of Pablo Neruda

I posted this entry on my blog in 2014. Then someone introduced me to a Neruda scholar, and for assorted reasons, I thought it best to take it down. I remembered it when I saw the video of Bertolucci describing his plan to degrade the actress Maria Schneider in order to see “her reaction as a girl, not an actress.” Even the greatest art is worthless beside the real pain of another person, but I am also not sure that art in its highest expression is compatible with turpitude. Is Bertolucci great? I found Last Tango in Paris a meandering bore. Anyway, I am reposting this for whomever might care to read it.

For a long time, whenever someone used express admiration for Pablo Neruda, I assumed one of the following to be the case:

1) the person had not read Neruda, but has been convinced by some opinion-propagator of the Harold Bloom stamp that a stated appreciation of Neruda was de rigeur.

2) the person had read Neruda in English and had charitably assumed that the poetry was as good as people say it is in Spanish and that a great deal had been lost in translation.

3) the person majored in Spanish in college, was very likely a high school Spanish teacher, and was caught in the unpleasant situation of a) needing to be able to claim a favorite book or two in Spanish and b) never having cultivated a vocabulary sufficient to appreciate, for example, Valle-Inclán. Such people generally possess sufficient degree of shrewdness to appreciate that Paolo Coelho or Harry Potter, books they actually enjoy, don’t cut the mustard when it comes to impressing others, and tend to lean heavily of the books they read in their classes, two which are inevitably One Hundred Years of Solitude and Neruda’s Twenty Love Songs and a Song of Despair.

I began to think of Neruda again one day when my wife and I mused as to what possible justification might exist for the fame of the twenty-line emetic Me gustas cuando callas: a farrago of souls, stars, butterflies, smiles, and melancholy posing as a love poem although, like so much doggerel of its type, it is really an ode to the poet’s intuitions about the loftiness of his own feelings.

Periodically, “revelations,” as they are called, about the reprehensible behavior of some treasured creative figure or other prove an occasion for the trotting out, on the part of writers who enjoy posing provocative questions that they do not bother to answer, the old threadbare cliché about “separating the artist from the person”: Woody Allen, Klaus Kinski, Roman Polanski, and many others have fit the bill. When these scandals transpire, I am always dismayed by the mediocrity of the parties who, it is thought, might be redeemed by the value of their so-called contributions to culture. Of course, people like to bandy about the word genius, for the implied ability to appreciate genius is far more aggrandizing than a simple statement like, “I liked Annie Hall,” and this helps explain how frequently the term is abused. Do people really think Woody Allen and Roman Polanski are geniuses?  The good artist/bad person dilemma may relevant with someone like Céline, whose pages on the death of his cat Courtial’s failed attempts to grow potatoes via the telluric method really are as beautiful as his antisemitism was disgusting; but commoner by far is the bad artist who is also a bad person, upheld by admirers who ignore his depravity because to do otherwise would bring their own mediocrity to light.

It is remarkable the ease with which philandering poetasters can be resurrected as “great lovers of women.” In 1930 Neruda married Maria Antonieta Hagenaar, a Dutch woman of withdrawn character with only a partial grasp of Spanish (“I love you when you are silent.”). In 1934, she gave birth to their daughter Malva, who was hydrocephalic. Neruda described her in a letter as “a perfectly ridiculous being, like a semicolon.” Not long before before, Neruda had begun an affair with Delia del Carril. He abandoned his wife and daughter in Marseilles two years afterward. In a letter to Delia, he complains of having to trim his own fingernails, but celebrates that once again, he feels alive. After Malva’s death in 1943, with her home country overrun by Nazis, Maria attempted to gain passage to Chile, but Neruda, who was a well-connected diplomat by trade, managed to prevent her doing so.

In his memoirs, Confieso que he vivido, Neruda tells the following story:

When I rented [my bungalow], I tried to find out where the toilet was; I couldn’t see it anywhere. Actually, it was nowhere near the shower, it was at the back of the house. I inspected it with curiosity. It was a wooden box with a hole in the middle, very much like the artifact I had known as a child in the Chilean countryside. But our toilets were set over a deep well or over running water. Here the receptacle was a simple metal pail under the round hole.

The pail was clean every morning, but I had no idea how its contents disappeared. One morning I rose earlier than usual, and I was amazed when I saw what had been happening.

Into the back of the house, walking like a dusky statue, came the most beautiful woman I had yet seen in Ceylon, a Tamil of the pariah caste. She was wearing a red-and-gold sari of the cheapest kind of cloth. She had heavy bangles on her bare ankles. Two tiny red dots glittered on either side of her nose. They must have been ordinary glass, but on her they were rubies.

She walked solemnly toward the latrine, without so much as a side glance at me, not bothering to acknowledge my existence, and vanished with the disgusting receptacle on her head, moving away with the steps of a goddess.

She was so lovely that, regardless of her humble job, I couldn’t get her off my mind. Like a shy jungle animal she belonged to another kind of existence, a different world. I called to her, but it was no use. After that, I sometimes put a gift in her path, a piece of silk or some fruit. She would go past without hearing or looking. That ignoble routine had been transformed by her dark beauty into the dutiful ceremony of an indifferent queen.

One morning, I decided to go all the way. I got a strong grip on her wrist and stared into her eyes. There was no language I could talk with her. Unsmiling, she let herself be led away and was soon naked in my bed. Her waist, so very slim, her full hips, the brimming cups of her breasts made her like one of the thousand-year-old sculptures from the south of India. It was the coming together of a man and a statue. She kept her eyes wide open all the while, completely unresponsive. She was right to despise me. The experience was never repeated.

I could not help, when reading this, to recollect the hair-raising mendacity of Louis Althusser’s account of his murdering of his wife, recently examined by Anne Boyer in the New Inquiry. Although their rationales differ, both share the particular wispy tone common to men who have been made to believe, by what must in the end be condemned as a constitutional enervation of western high culture, that their feelings are more moving, their regrets more valid, their transports more ethereal, than those of other people.

It is bracing to recall, in this connection, that Chekhov, an artist and thinker incomparably superior to any mentioned here thusfar, when attempting to explain in a letter to his younger brother the nature of culture, ignored nonsense about art and nobility of spirit, and listed, as the first quality cultured people must satisfy, “a respect human personality, “ as the fruit of which “they are always kind, gentle, polite, and ready to give in to others.”


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