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LATIN AMERICA IN DIALOGUE WITH THE ORIENT
A conversation with Haroldo de
Maria Esther Maciel
In this interview, the Brazilian poet, critic and translator Haroldo de Campos discusses the relations between Latin American poetry and the poetic legacy of the orient, the presence of oriental features in modernist poems of the English and Portuguese language, the cultural intersections between Brazil and Japan, and his own experience as a translator of Japanese poetry. He also revisits the paths and by-ways of Latin American literature in its cultural transits and exchanges, as well as reshaping and recontextualising it in the wider, constellary space of the Americas.
Maria Esther Maciel: It can be said that Latin-American literature has always had the ability to incorporate elements of other cultures in a creative way, within what you yourself have called "anthropophagous reason." This incorporation, which obviously has not been restricted to the European legacy, has also, mainly since the beginning of the 20th century with the advent of literary movements of rupture, included traditions from multiple origins, eastern and western. In your opinion, to what extent could this vocation for multiplicity and "otherness" really characterise the Latin American difference in relation to the canonical literatures of the west?
Haroldo de Campos: I think that the Latin American writer was and has been, up to a certain moment, the third-excluded, that is to say, the Latin American literature was understood as a minor or receptive literature (even Antonio Candido defines Brazilian literature as a minor branch of a minor tree which would be Portuguese literature). I have a different idea, as I don’t think there are greater or lesser literatures. I think there are different contributions to universal literature, to great literature. Thus, the fact that Gregório de Matos is considered a brilliant disciple of Gongora will never diminish his specific contribution: there will be a place in great literature for Gongora and for Quevedo, as there will be a place for Gregório de Matos, who has poetic elements that can only be found in Gregório de Matos. This is the same case with Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz, who, although she is Gongora’s direct disciple, in the interpretation of Octavio Paz, for example, she does things that foretell Mallarmé and Huidobro and that were not even on the horizon of Gongora’s poetry. My idea is this: there are no minor literatures, but distinct contributions in the concert of universal literature. In this perspective, the Latin Americans, in our literature, constantly inscribe our differences, since the so-called colonial phase. In fact, in the Brazilian case, there is a curious fact, quite correctly noted by a scholar of Bahian Baroque, João Gomes Teixeira Leite, author of Boca de Brasa [Red-Hot Mouth]. He demonstrates in an article that it is not even correct to say that Brazilian literature is a minor branch of a minor tree because the Brazilian literature produced in the Baroque period was not a branch of Portuguese, but of Spanish literature, since Portugal was under the aegis of Spain and the poets of the Baroque (not to speak of Padre Anchieta, who was from the Canary Islands) wrote both in Spanish and Portuguese. Gregório de Matos has bilingual poems, has poems in Spanish, and even grafts Castillianisms onto the Portuguese language. Manoel Botelho de Oliveira, whose Musa do parnaso [Muse of Parnassus], refers to Portugal in the prologue as a province of Spain, has one section in Portuguese, another in Spanish, others in Italian and in Latin. Besides, Spanish literature of that time was not a minor tree, it was a literature of the Siglo de Oro (Golden Age), one of the most important in the world. So the notion that our literature is a minor branch of Portuguese literature ends up being a somewhat idealised, ideological construction. I use the word ideological in the specific sense of transforming a particular interest into a general interest, of transforming, for example, the viewpoint of Romanticism, which is the keynote of national emancipation, into the viewpoint of literature in general. As if the Baroque had to be excluded from the formation of the national literature because it did not respond to its viewpoint and to the literary system articulated in that model of nationalism. So, in the opinion of this or that person, Brazilian literature could be considered a minor literature, but that is definitely not my position. Even from the historical-contextual point of view, as I have pointed out, our literature was not a branch of the Portuguese, but a branch of Spanish literature of the Siglo de Oro (Golden Age), of which the Portuguese was also a tributary. The Portuguese poets of the period were all of them Gongorian, as seen by the work of Ayres Montes on Gongora and Portuguese poetry. For many years after the restoration of 1640, several critics of Portuguese literature, like João Gaspar Simões, could not hear of Baroque, for Baroque meant Spain.
Latin American literatures, the so-called third-world, marginal or peripheral
literatures – names that in my view do not describe the reality – have a
universal, universalist vocation, contrary to others, which have a more
monolingual and imperialist vocation (as is the specific case, for example,
of a certain part of French literature and a certain part of North American
literature). As a striking example of this universalist vocation, we
can cite Borges, a Latin American who has become the symbol of universal
literature, in several dimensions, and who also had a great interest in the
Eastern, Hebrew, Icelandic, Scandinavian literatures, just to mention a few.
ME: Borges even claimed the right of the Latin American to make use of the universal literary repertory, which also belongs to us as much as to those who think they are its proprietors. In this sense, both Hamlet and Don Quixote belong as much to the Latin Americans as to the English and the Spanish.
HC: Exactly. And Borges was a living example of this. He had a Swiss
education, his early reading was more in English, through the environment in
which he was born, he read Don Quixote for the first time in an English
translation, he was the contemporary of the German expressionist group, he
took part in the Spanish avant-garde movement, Ultraísmo.
ME: Isn’t it notable how we have inserted other non-western cultures into this so-called universal repertory? How would you approach the great interest of Latin American writers in the Orient?
HC: Concerning the interest of the Latin Americans in the Orient, I can say
that this happened in the environment of the Americas, and not only Latin
America. In the Americas, the North American high modernism really had
an extraordinary interest in Oriental culture. At that time, the North
American intellectual was also an exile who wanted to live in Europe, and
also had the problem of feeling somewhat marginalised. If the Latin American
has always felt exiled, the same can be said for the North American during
the Twenties, since the protagonists of the high modernism of the English
language were all self-exiles. That’s the case of Pound, and of Eliot, who
even adopted British citizenship. And both poets, exactly because of
this condition of feeling cornered within the American culture and wanting to
expand their horizons to the extent of immigrating to Europe, opened
themselves up to the most different cultures. Eliot, for example, in The
Waste Land, incorporated citations from Sanskrit literature, while Pound,
very early became interested in China and Japan, which led him to translate
classical Chinese poetry and the Japanese Noh theatre, in light of
Fenellosa’s manuscripts, since at that time he still didn’t know any Chinese
or Japanese. In fact, Pound never studied Japanese. He studied Chinese,
especially after the first phase of his career, when he made the first
translations, which were the fundamental ones, those in which, according to
Eliot, Pound invented Chinese poetry in the English language. After
this he really took up Chinese studies, self-taught, and after a period of
time, he had a quite reasonable knowledge of the language.
ME: And in the specific case of the Latin American poets, how is this opening to oriental poetic forms seen?
HC: There is the case of the poet Juan Tablada, in Mexico, and in Brazil we have the curious case of a poet who had a orientalising tendency for synthesis, that is Oswald de Andrade, with his Pau-Brasil [Brazil-Wood] poetry. A poem like amor/humor [love/humour], for example, is a minute-poem, almost a haiku.
ME: Did Oswald de Andrade have any explicit interest in oriental poetry or was his orientalising feature, let us say, involuntary?
HC: I don’t believe he had any explicit interest. There was this tendency
for synthesis that ended up bringing him closer to oriental poetry.
Now, in that generation, there was a rather curious example of a great friend
of his, a moderate modernist, who was Guilherme de Almeida, who was not only
the first president of the Brazil-Japan Cultural Association, in São Paulo,
but also invented a peculiar system for translating Japanese haikus, using
rhymes, with sometimes very interesting results.
ME: And in earlier generations?
HC: In the case of earlier poetry, we have to consider a poet like Paulo Leminski, who knew the Japanese language, translated it, wrote a precious book on Matsuo Basho and incorporated a specific form of haiku into his own poetry. There is also a lot of dilution, since if the brevity in haiku is very difficult to obtain, it is also very easily confused. From this comes a series of epigonal attempts, a kind of haiku mode that does not interest me. I am interested in the radical haiku, which, occurs, for example in Paulo Leminski’s poetry. Not necessarily a haiku following the rules of the Japanese model, but a haiku reinvented in personal, sometimes parodic terms. Or like the involuntary haiku, like Oswald de Andrade’s amor/humor, which is really an extraordinary poem in its concision.
ME: What is your own position as a poet, translator and critic toward oriental poetry?
HC: My own position was once much more programmed and projected.
Leminski, who was much younger, also had a planned position, but already as a
highly creative heir of our generation. In my specific case, the
contact with oriental poetry was planned: first, with my admiration for
Pound; later, with the idea of concrete poetry and the ideogram method.
And at a certain point I thought that if I am speaking of an ideogram, let’s
see how this works in practice. And as it happened, 1956 was the year
of the foundation of the Brazil-Japan Cultural Centre, whose first president
was, as I’ve said, Guilherme de Almeida. So my wife, Carmen, and I enrolled
in one of the first classes in Japanese there, which had as its teacher a
Bahian from Feira de Santana. His name was José Santana do Carmo and he
had learned Japanese to teach the daughters of immigrants in Marília.
He eventually wrote a quite interesting primary grammar of the Japanese
language. He had perfectly mastered the language, both oral and
written, was a good calligrapher, and even physically had begun to look
half-Japanese. In the course, I learned the basic material and later
hired Santana as a private tutor, since my interest was mainly in the
ideograms, in the written language, and the people at the school didn’t want
him to go too much into ideograms, in the regular conversation courses.
It was then that I began to make my first translations with Santana’s help, I
published them in the newspaper O Estado de São Paulo and then, through a
note that circulated among the people connected to the Ezra Pound
circle, I saw references to a Japanese poet, Ktasono Katsue, who had
maintained correspondence with Pound in the Thirties and who wrote
avant-garde poetry. I contacted this poet by letter, spoke of concrete
poetry, and sent some translations into English of our poems. He never
answered the letter directly, but sent me a copy of a magazine he ran, called
Vou, in which he Published a Japanese concrete poem (which Santana and I had
translated into Portuguese), full of repetitions and combinatory
enumerations, in a truly concrete technique, often with surrealist images,
but very stripped down, and using ideographic elements, since we used
alphabetic characters. It was a gestalt technique, which made use of elements
of the Japanese language and western techniques. This reversion is
curious. I speak of this, at the end of my essay in the book Ideograma
[Ideogram], as a phase: first, there was the influence of the ideogram
on a phonetic language, then this ideogrammatic poetry turned into a phonetic
language, which would be Brazilian concrete poetry, for the Japanese, who for
their part began to use alphabetic-gestalt techniques close to and like
ideographic characters. The last page of my essay is the transcription
of a poem of one of the most important Japanese concrete poets, Seiichi
Niikuni. The poem, on rain, was like that calligram of Apollinaire, "Il
pleut," except that the Chinese and Japanese pictogram for rain is a sky
with some raindrops. The calligraphic raindrops of the ideogram were
organised into a gestaltic order; inspired by the treatment we gave the
problem. So it was really an approach to the orient in programmatic
terms: there was the fascination for the Chinese ideogram, the ideogrammatic
method of Pound, of concrete poetry, the first translations of haikus, the
contact with Kitasono, the translation of the concrete poem that he composed,
and so on. Several exhibitions of concrete poetry took place in Japan, the
first in the National Museum of Tokyo, presented by Katasono, later there
were joint exhibitions with some Germans who were also doing concrete
poetry. The poet and composer Luis Carlos Vinholes, who was connected
to our group and had been living for many years in Tokyo, was a timely
mediator of these initiatives.
ME: And at the present moment? What are your connections to Japanese culture?
HC: At present, I maintain contact with some poets. Kitasono died, Seiichi Niikuni died, but there are some new poets with whom I have contact and there is a poet of my generation, Fujitomi Yasuo, the translator of Cummings into Japanese, with whom I have maintained contact. More recently, I established a very cordial and close friendship with a poet who is not really of the visual type, but of an experimental type that I would call jazz-visual-performance: Gôzô Yoshimasu, a 57 year-old poet, one of the more well-known contemporary Japanese poets, married for many years to a Brazilian woman, Marília, who is a singer and composer. Together, they have had some marvellous performances. I have translated some of his poems and he is interested in turning some fragments of my poem Galáxias [Galaxies] into Japanese. We even had a presentation in a poetry encounter in Medellín: I translated two poems of his into Spanish and we did a joint reading in Spanish and Japanese, while Marília sang fragments in English. It was an extraordinary success.
ME: Didn’t you do some experiments in renga, in the way Octavio Paz did around 1970 with Jacques Roubaud, Edoardo Sanguinetti and Charles Tomlinson, each one using a different language? Renga is a very rich form of Japanese poetry, since it has as one of its principles the alternation of authors. What one can say about your intellectual career is that you are a poet used to working with others, besides having a multilingual vocation.
HC: I have never had that type of experience. When Paz took part in the experiment with renga, I happened to be in Paris and was present at the final session. The only problem with that renga was that, if I remember correctly, it had the sonnet as a model. I think the sonnet does not work very well with renga, since it is very long as a measure. The ideal would be a much shorter measure.
ME: In that case there was also a proposal for automatic writing, of a surrealist type, wasn’t there?
HC: Yes, there was. Now, in a renga that Régis Bonvicino is
promoting with some North American poets, each participant is free, even
though there is a certain general theme. Each one writes the poem
following his own stimulus; there is no formerly defined standard. I
gave some minimalist contributions, written with the segments I had received
previous to my intervention. I also wrote and published something much
more ambitious: a poem called "Renga in New York." There was a
project to do a renga in New York with Roubaud and an American poet, but, as
it didn’t go ahead, I ended up writing a renga by myself. In fact,
there is a tradition of solo-renga. Great poets of renga not only wrote
the collectively linked poem but were also soloists, composing a poem by a
single author. In my renga I used a Dantean terza rima, maintaining that
rhyme scheme, with one link coming from another and with a very ironic tone.
So I can say that my approach was nourished from these interests of a more
linguistic order, which is always how it happens with me. If I am
interested in the Bible, I study Hebrew; if I am interested in Russian
poetry, I study Russian. That is, I acquire skill in the language, a
functional knowledge that allows me to handle dictionaries and work with
ME: How would you define the oriental experiments of Octavio Paz? To what extent are you both similar and distinguishable from one another in relation to this approach to the orient? It is clear that Paz’s interest is not confined to language but is open to other aspects of a more cultural kind...
HC: The case of Paz is really distinct. He had a great cultural
knowledge of China, Japan, and especially India. He wrote on eroticism,
religion, history, culture with great depth. He is very erudite in these
subjects. His approach is more culturalist, while mine is more
concentrated on the material problem of the poem and language.
ME: I think that, beyond the interests of an intellectual kind that
inspire each of you, there is also a question of personal history, the
experiences lived by each of you, isn’t there? Even though you are
cosmopolitan, with an admirable ability to move among several languages, take
frequent international trips and always maintain a dialogue with the rest of
the world, your topos is more stable on Brazilian soil. Paz, on the
other hand, owing to his professional duties, lived many years in countries others
than Mexico, and had direct contact with different cultures, like those of
Japan and India. This no doubt led to a more culturalistic manner of
dealing with the literatures of those countries.
HC: Yes, I would say that the defining characteristic of Paz was his profound immersion in Hindu culture in its various dimensions. He was familiar with the monuments, he observed the rituals, he had experience with religious traditions, such as Tantrism, for example.
ME: Then the poem Blanco would be a kind of tantric reinvention of "Un coup de dés"...
HC: Exactly. Blanco uses Un coup de dés through tantrism, which is fantastic. So I would say that we have different and even complementary viewpoints in the way of dealing with the orient. In my case, I don’t have Paz’s culturalist tendency. If I were to translate Hindu poetry, my possibility of doing so would be through the study of the language and, once again, following that procedure that goes from the more rudimentary concrete, which is the knowledge of the language, to the study of the more elaborate literary forms.
ME: I think both your and Paz’s procedures make possible a reconstitution of the very concept of universal literature, which was always circumscribed by the western canon.
HC: That reminds me of an observation by a professor of Comparative
Literature, Earl Miner, a great specialist on Japanese culture, and author of
several important works, who, in a book published by the University of
Brasilia on Comparative Literature, called western literature provincial,
since it considers itself the only existing literature, absolutely ignoring
millenary literatures like the Chinese, Japanese, Hindu, Islamic,
Persian. For him, few western writers realise or realised that
literature does not occur only on this western map. Literature not only has
Greco-Hebraic roots, but also takes place in this space of the preferential
languages of the west.
ME: Borges showed this very well, when he sought in these millenary literatures creative subsidies for his own literature. It is notable that the book he wrote on Buddha, in collaboration with Alicia Jurado, has great prestige in Japan. This shows, as you yourself said in talking about the reception of concrete poetry by the Japanese, that the Orientals are interested in the readings and appropriations we make of their culture.
HC: Exactly. Besides Borges, who had this nose for the orient, was
steeped in it, I could cite another who also had, I’d say, a heuristic
expression in relation to Japan: Roland Barthes. His Empire of Signs
was received by the Japanese with great interest. I was given, by a Japanese
poet and semiotician who studied with the philosopher Max Bense, an anthology
in which he contributed along with several Japanese semioticians and which
focuses on various aspects of Nipponic culture, whose title in English was
also Empire of Signs, in homage to Barthes’ book. Many people criticise
Barthes, saying he only stayed two weeks in Japan and dared to write a book
on Japanese culture. But it doesn’t matter if it was only two weeks. He
has been reflecting on this for a long time, and with the great semiotic
acuteness he possessed, he wrote a work of decodification of signs that is
much appreciated by the Japanese. For example, he doesn’t see that question
of etiquette, of bowing, as a form of subservience, but as a form of
civilised relation to each other.
ME: Now a more personal question: does this predominately aesthetic-linguistic option of yours necessarily exclude a mystical affinity with the cultures of the east?
HC: I don’t have that kind of affinity because I’m not a mystical
person. But I have always had a lot of respect for all religions.
Of course, I cannot respect an Arab Shiite or a Hebrew fundamentalist, which
serve the order of fanaticism and only merit repudiation. I respect cultural
specifics, the rites that make up religions, even though I am not
religious. On the other hand, I think being an agnostic is not to be an
athiest. An agnostic is one who questions. I feel that which
Oswald called "the Orphic constant in man," the awe before the
"sacred" and the unknowable, for which answers are not found and
not even science can explain. For example, the fact that we do not know
from where we have come and where we are going, if there was an intervention
of a creator god or if nature would be, as the pantheists think, what
engenders all this, etc. Also, I am very interested in the Hebrew
Kabbalah, in Buddhism, in Taoism, wherever I have read, in Vedic religion.
But all this interest of mine, rather than a mystical note, is a note of
intellectual questioning. The agnostic is he who has no defined gnosis,
which does not mean he denies the possibility of a gnosis. He is in the
process of seeking, and at certain, sometimes crucial moments of his
experience of life, this seeking even imposes itself. Suddenly, his
rational side is, let us say, subdued by this "Orphic constant"
that Oswald speaks of.
ME: So wouldn’t poetry be your religion, as it was for many poets?
HC: Yes, in a certain sense that’s right. If I have a religion, that religion is poetry. Or, at least, everything that can be religious passes through the sieve of poetry. As Novalis said, "the more poetic, the truer." I went to the Biblical texts and, for example, a text like Qoheleth (Ecclesiastes), which I translated in its entirety, deeply impressed me. It is, let us say, the most radical movement in the Hebrew Bible, of a reflection on the finitude of man. Not even the Book of Job has this radicalness, as it has a happy ending. While in Qoheleth, the book ends with the expression of the radical finitude of man: before death there is no one who has come to say that the fate of man is different from the fate of animals. Both die in the end. Qoheleth does not think about the immortality of the soul, as this was not necessarily a Hebraic idea, but a question consolidated in Christianity. For him, the soul is dissolved in the universal. It was what later constituted the object of a heresy in medieval Christianity, which is called Monopsychism, of Averroist-Arab origin. In this principle, there is no individual soul, but a great universal soul, with which man’s soul will unite at the hour of his death. That is to say, the so-called individual soul stops being individual to dissolve itself in a universal soul. It is the famous heresy of Siger of Brabant, which was condemned by Thomas Aquinas. Dante puts both Siger and Aquinas in the Paradise, which seems to be the fulfillment, avant la lettre, of that Borges story about two enemy theologians before God and God cannot tell the difference between them, as they are the same person. In the Paradise, Dante reconciles the two men, who in life were irreconcilable. Siger of Brabante was condemned as a heretic and had a very strange end. So, Ecclesiastes was the most radical poem on the finite of the human being and the character of the void, of a "mist of nothing," of glories, of everything. It is a text that has a large dimension of contemporaneity. He believes that man was not capable of achieving greatness and the beauty of God’s plan and that he even deviated from this plan. In Hebrew, the word "sinner" has a different meaning than the Christian, and it means that person who is off the target, who cannot discover the plan of Elohim (God): he or she shoots either too far or not far enough, but never hits the target. Thus, there is a conception of grace, fundamental in the Hebrew conception. Why are some people allotted a portion and not others? Thomas Mann worked on this in his Joseph tetralogy: why is Joseph allotted a portion and not his brothers? Why does this choice exist? This choice corresponds to the fact that certain people hit the target and others do not. And they are not those who we think hit it, who really do so. Who decides on the fact of this one or that one hitting the target is Elohim and we can never know whom He really designates. That is, it is a vicious, even ironic circle, and this is present in Ecclesiastes. I confess to you: Pound said, after having deeply studied Confucius, that his religion was Confucian philosophy; and in my case, there was a moment, which even today strikes me, in which I almost though my religion was the Quoheleth.
ME: Returning to the question of oriental poetry, what are your new projects in this area?
HC: I wrote the book Escrito sobre Jade [Written on Jade], with Guilherme
Mansur, and as we were quite enthusiastic about the result, I proposed to him
another book gathering all my separate translations of Japanese poetry, to
which I’m going to give a title that comes from a Jesuit work, a grammar more
or less from the period of Anchieta, and which is called Gramática da Língua
Japoa [Grammar of the Japanese Language]. In my case, it will be
Antologia da Poesia Japoa [Anthology of Japanese Poetry].
ME: It is interesting how these little known poems, on being "transcreated" in Portuguese language, end up interfering in the flow of Brazillian poetic production, contributing to a redirectioning of contemporary poetry itself, isn’t it? Many reader- poets of these translations you do will be inspired to create new poems and new poetics.
HC: I can say that these translations have interfered greatly in my own
poetic work and I think they might interfere in the work of other poets as
Translation: Tom Burns
Campos, Haroldo, 1995. "de Galáxias," trans. Suzanne Jill Levine (from a basic version by Jon Tolman), in Baptista, Josely Vianna. Desencontrários / Unencontraries: 6 poetas brasileiros / 6 Brazilian Poets, ed. (Sao Paulo, Bamerindus), pp. 70-73
Campos, Haroldo de, 1984. Galáxias (São Paulo: Ex-Libris).
Campos, Haroldo de, 1992. ‘Da razão
antropofágica: diálogo e
Campos, Haroldo de, 1992. ‘Minha relação com a tradição é musical", in Metalinguagem e outras metas (São Paulo: Perspectiva), pp. 257-267.
Campos, Haroldo de, 1989. O seqüestro do barroco na formação da literatura bra-sileira. (Salvador: Casa de Jorge Amado).
Campos, Haroldo, Campos, Augusto & Pignatari,
Décio, 1975. Teoria da poesia concreta (São Paulo: Duas Cidades).
interview, the Brazilian poet, critic, and translator Haroldo de Campos,
talks at length about topics related to modern and contemporary Latin
American poetry, especially concerning its relationship with Japanese,
Chinese, and Indian cultures. Discussing his often radical, and therefore
controversial, views on Brazilian literature and criticism, he deals with a
large range of important themes such as Modernism, the Baroque and the
Avant-garde, at the same time as considers his own literary and intellectual