[Index / Índex]
Montserrat Roser i Puig
A cornerstone in the lyrical expression of Gabriel Ferrater is the notion of passion which is seen to act as a central, dynamic force throughout the entire creative oeuvre. The energy produced by this emotive force was interpreted by the poet as capable of taking man beyond love, morality, social observation or sentimental frustration and into the realms of an all-inclusive vital experience. In the following study it is my intention to address the question of whether this experience gives way to speculation of a purely intellectual nature or if, more frivolously, it amounts to little more than a source of pleasure, a reaction which might be anticipated by the author’s own enigmatic declaration that: "Òptimament, tot poema hauria d’ésser clar, sensat, lúcid i apassionat, és a dir, en una paraula, divertit." (1) Initially, in this respect, I shall consider the value attributed by Ferrater to passion, - that is, sensuality, sexuality and eroticism - in his appraisal of Carles Riba’s poetry and then move on to evaluate his contribution to Catalan poetry as a whole in his foregrounding of eroticism as a primary motif.
At the beginning of his series of lectures on Riba in 1966, Ferrater expressed the view that all his generation owed a significant debt to his illustrious academic predecessor or, as he himself put it: "Parlar de Riba és una cosa una mica difícil per a mi i per tot escriptor català de la meva edat, perquè la nostra relació és massa íntima, perquè, de fet, tots nosaltres vam entrar en la literatura per Riba." (2) A careful reading of these lectures reveals that, of all the comments Ferrater makes on the master’s work, the most recurrent is that of intensity, a term which can be read as the integration of experience and intelligence: the result of the amalgam of passion (emotion and/ or eroticism depending on the case), with the intellect. Another view that also recurs is that "en comparació amb els poetes catalans anteriors a ell, [Riba fou] més intens, i, sobretot, més europeu." (p.10)
As suggested by the above quotation, the identification of Ferrater with Riba is very powerful throughout the lecture series. For instance, after declaring himself a non-realist and a revolutionary, he points out that: "hauríem de reconèixer que el realisme a la literatura catalana no és cap novetat. No és cap novetat sinó al contrari. És a dir: el que és innovador i revolucionari en la poesia catalana és l’únic poeta no realista que ha tingut Catalunya, que és Riba." (p.11) Much of the innovation Ferrater so admired in Riba revolved around this feeling of intensity or, as he explained it himself: "l’intent de reconstruir la pròpia identitat a través dels sentiments de cada moment." (p.41) That is, the building of one’s own identity in youth by means of experiencing life to the full. For Ferrater, this experience becomes inextricably linked with hedonism and eroticism, two elements which are also discussed in his appraisal of Riba’s verse.
Ferrater saw himself, too, as "innovador i revolucionari, intens i, sobretot més europeu" than his contemporaries. Nonetheless, compared to Riba, the ideology behind Ferrater’s work is extended significantly; and the same is true of the type of revolt and thus the type of transgression which he shows himself keen to exercise. (3) However, the principles according to which he judges passion remain noticeably faithful to the trend started by the older poet: "Riba és un poeta molt eròtic, sobretot en el segon període (en el període mallarmeà), i, després, altre cop, a Salvatge cor, però és una cosa que no es veu massa, perquè, per dir-ho així, el seu erotisme és enormement elaborat cerebralment i Riba sempre el jutja o l’organitza des d’aquest punt de vista de la relació amb el centre personal seu." (4)
Indeed, Riba’s eroticism might well escape the casual reader whereas his disciple’s is reiterated in almost every review which appears of his poetry. In fact, the most detailed analyses of the latter, undertaken by Lluís Izquierdo, Xavier Macià and Núria Perpinyà, elaborated a fitting classification of the poems into three categories. (5) These, however, are not particularly helpful in the task of demonstrating the fact that it is precisely erotic experience itself which is the key element of a great part of Ferrater’s verse.
Admittedly, Ferrater had declared: "Faig per maneres que les idees teòriques no em distreguin massa, però potser puc dir que he arribat a allunyar-me molt de l’estètica romàntica, dins la qual ha nascut el meu temps"; and he seems to have been reacting against the over-intellectualization of poetry in his advocacy of a more down-to-earth approach to it when stating: "Es pot perdonar que un poeta sigui deficient en alguna cosa, però no trobo perdonables els molts poetes d’ara que reserven per a la poesia les seves estupefaccions, i la seva poesia dóna d’ells una imatge tan ximple que no pot ésser la de cap persona viva, car una vida no es conserva si no és ben atenta a les lleis del diner i als moviments dels homes i de les dones." Instead, his own poetic output displays a fairly comprehensive description of specific, often erotic, encounters. As he says, "Entenc la poesia com la descripció, passant de moment en moment, de la vida moral d’un home ordinari, com ho sóc jo. Cap de les coses que les meves poesies consignen no té cap valor eminent, i és la complicació i l’equilibri dels termes que pot donar al conjunt un interès de veritat sostinguda." (6) However, the question arises here as to whether the "sustained truth" considered by the author to be of such major importance is indeed to be found in these poems.
Despite this evident disinclination to be distracted by the possibilities of theory, Ferrater certainly considered himself a lover of books and was powerfully influenced by Bertran de Born, Chaucer, Villon, Skelton, Catullus, Thomas Hardy, Frost, Ransom, Graves, Auden, Brecht, March, Carner, Jaume Roig and Freud. He also wrote on many German, British and French writers, and through poetry, critical analysis and visits abroad, it is fair to assume that he would have been familiar with most of the theories on sexuality and eroticism, up to the mid to late sixties. Indeed Ferrater himself points directly to Sigmund Freud’s legacy on his generation when he writes in "Poema inacabat" (lines 233-248):
However, instead of looking for a new appreciation of the topic of sexuality in Ferrater, critics have tended to content themselves in the mapping or identification of subconscious associations in the poetry. For instance, Joan Triadú relates Menja’t una cama to the world of dreams. This collection, the commentator sustains, "només s’explica en una bona part dels versos i fins i tot en poemes sencers, per l’arrencada gairebé onírica d’un poeta que domina el seu ofici i sap tractar qualsevol tema amb lucidesa verbal, sense perdre el contacte amb el subconscient, és a dir, amb el marge d’instintiu i de revelat que tot poeta arrossega entre records i somnis." (7) For Josep Maria Castellet it is also apparent that Ferrater "no va intentar mai una poesia normativa, ja que als poemes que vénen després d’"In memoriam" comencem a trobar (el que anomenàvem abans) les tensions profundes, i, potser, els elements inconscients, és a dir, els motors veritables de la seva poesia." (8) And Arthur Terry assures that Ferrater "és massa intel×ligent per a creure que tot el que pot cabre en un poema és reduïble a termes racionals"; even though he goes on to explain that: "per bé que algun cop empri una imatge que s’acosta al superrealisme, resta ancorat fermament al món de la consciència." (9)
Given his evident familiarity with the fundamentals of psychoanalytical theory, Ferrater would have been familiar with Freud’s speculation on the concept of the libido and the qualitative incoherence between his assertion, on the one hand, that the majority of mankind felt degraded by the sexual act and were reluctant to perform it and, on the other, the insistence that sexual gratification was "one of ... life’s culminations" and that, "apart from a few perverse fanatics, all the world knew this and conducted life accordingly." (10) And indeed there is ample evidence in the poetry to support the view that Ferrater’s approach was entirely post-Freudian in this respect. Another interesting issue raised by the poet - and one closely related to the deliberation here - is his revealing comments on Carles Riba’s "Sobre un poema de Vicente Aleixandre". Here, he reflects on the lines: "per servir-se de l’ànima,/ que ha estat subtil el cos!" and reaches the conclusion that for Riba, "l’ànima estava al servei del seu cos, de la seva pura existència física." (11) In other words this amounts to, or is at least highly reminiscent of, a fundamental claim of Hume’s moral psychology - used in his rebuttal of the familiar rationalist pretence - that reason can oppose the passions and teach us moral truths: "Reason is, and ought only to be the slave of the passions, and can never pretend to any other office that to serve and obey them." (Treatise, II, iii, 3)
In his argument, Hume insists that demonstrative reasoning (for example in mathematics) plainly has no effect in itself on the passions while probable reasoning is of significance only by "directing" our aversion to pain, or our propensity to pleasure, to those things that we take to be causally related to them. With regard to the first type we can see an interesting correlation with Ferrater’s opening quotation of Teoria dels cossos, which Macià and Perpinyà describe as: "la formulació de l’organització del tema amorós en termes matemàtics …[que] posa de manifest la preocupació del poeta per racionalitzar el fenomen humà més irracional. I encara més: aquesta mena de racionalització denota l’afany del poeta per modernitzar el llast de tradició de la poesia amorosa." In addition, in the poem "Mecànica terrestre" (lines 29-31) (12) we see:
In the second case the connection takes us to the recurrent presence of the determination to live for the present. But this does not account for all the complexity of the poet’s outlook. In this respect it might prove revealing to consider the nature of this speculation in the context of Georges Bataille’s theory of eroticism, published as L’Erotisme in 1958, common currency amongst Ferrater and his contemporaries in its French original and which appeared in Spanish translation in 1971. (13)
Eroticism, according to the French philosopher, "is a fundamental cultural experience, in that it embodies an elemental dynamic between discontinuity and continuity; the human condition is essentially a discontinuous state in that individuals are necessarily isolated beings who ‘perish in isolation in the midst of an incomprehensible adventure’ and the ultimate state of continuity is death." (14) However, it is supposed that erotic activity expresses an elemental human urge to substitute the sensation of isolation and discontinuity with a feeling of profound continuity. "It is through erotic activity - whether in its emotional, physical or religious forms - that the boundaries between individuals are partially and momentarily dissolved, since the sense of the self is fleetingly taken over by the realm of the senses and the demands of the body. Erotic activity, by dissolving the separate beings that participate in it, reveals their fundamental continuity, like the waves of a stormy sea." In the final analysis, "Eroticism, it may be said, is assenting to life up to the point of death." (15)
In Ferrater’s poetry there is no evidence of the erotic game as escapism. On the contrary, it comes across as an essential element in the discovery and rediscovery of passion. In "Jocs" (lines 70-73), for instance, a whole series of non-erotic games is depicted and the final hope is that they will lead to some sort of good :
However, this certainty only arrives when the game includes an erotic dimension ("Societas pandari", lines 26-29):
According to the critic Lois McNay, in Bataille’s theory, "human erotic activity - as distinct from the unfettered sexual behaviour of animals - is mediated through structures of prohibition and taboo and these taboos exist in all societies to combat the innate violence of man and to stabilize social existence. The violation of taboos constitutes the necessary basis of human social life and, in effect, throughout history the most fundamental taboos on human behaviour have always been concerned with death and sexual functions. This means that the mainspring of eroticism is a profound complicity between law and the violation of law, taboo and transgression and, even if these are not necessarily consciously articulated, it is when they are violated that their full force can be experienced."
In the above explanation we can identify some of the issues that appear regularly in Ferrater’s poetry. First there is the issue of the closeness between man and animal. This is something that Ferrater analyses in Riba’s poetry: "la intenció de Riba és, justament, de revelar-se a si mateix com a home animal i, com diu ell [Salvatge cor, XIV, 1] , ‘la boca al goig, l’esperit cos avall.’ És a dir (aquesta és l’experiència central de Salvatge cor), Riba es vol reflectir a si mateix..., quan vivia cos avall. [...] I és meravellós de veure que la culminació de tot el treball de tota una vida d’un intel×lectual de primera categoria es resol en aquesta xifra de saviesa que és veure’s ell mateix com pur ‘ésser animal’ i com un ‘animal eròtic’, tal com són els animals." The significance of this point is not lost on Ferrater as it is, in fact, the very insight he adduces as the conclusion to his book on his poetic predecessor: "Doncs bé: és això, el recordar-nos que som parents de les bèsties, el paper de la literatura dins la cultura, i em sembla que la poesia dels darrers anys de Riba és una gran poesia perquè està centrada en aquesta idea, i, sobretot, més que una idea, podríem dir, en aquesta emoció: en aquest rebuig de tota ideologia i en el tornar a ser parents de les bèsties!" (16) However, when Ferrater uses this theme in his own poetry he tends to do so with irony, always reminding us of the truly genuine nature of animals versus the innate ill intent of man ("Faula segona", lines 30-34):
and ("Poema inacabat", lines 1051 - 56):
Moreover, it is also important to bear in mind the taboos inherent in contemporary Catalan society which, though not always clearly expressed, are poignantly evoked. Ferrater was certainly aware of his acts of transgression - as, indeed, were all his readers - and to him transgression was always linked to passion and pleasure ("Cançó idiota", lines 1-4):
The impulse towards libidinal excess is expressed in life every time violence or irrationality triumphs over reason. The forces that impel human beings towards death, profligacy and extravagance are the "sovereign" forces of nature and life themselves: the "blind surge of life". Or, as Bataille has it, "erotic activity is the primary expression in human existence of this surge of life." (18) According to this perspective, there is nothing perverse in eroticism at all, as Ferrater remarks pertinently in the "Poema inacabat" (line 965): "Sostinc que no sóc jo el pervers". This same speculation is duly continued in the poem "Joc" (lines 4 - 9):
For Bataille, "the marginalization of the experience of transgression is indicative of the standardized, passionless and increasingly rational nature of the modern experience. The capitalist system rests on an imbalance between the principle of work and of excess, between the forces of taboo and transgression. In capitalism, the work ethic or the ‘narrow capitalist principle’ predominates binding humankind to an objective awareness of things at the cost of its ‘sexual exuberance’ or ‘inner truths’." (19) The importance awarded by Ferrater to passion, as I have argued, was enormous, striking at the very heart of this system. It was precisely for this reason that he would hold that any good poem had to be apassionat, and that Riba’s best poetry was "intense"; and the man himself was to be admired because: "Era una persona integríssima, d’una intensitat de, justament, experiència i intel×ligència, i d’una integració de totes les parts de la seva persona impressionant." (20) Indeed, for him, passion had always been at the core of good poetry concurring with his belief that the role of literature was to show such passion.
Bataille’s deliberations were, of course, to prove deeply influential on Foucault, especially with respect to his formulation that the contemporary preoccupation with sex is a manifestation of the extent to which individuals are controlled by an insidious disciplinary power that produces confessing and self-policing subjects. Similarly, the sociologist was also to claim that modern sexuality is impoverished and "denatured" in comparison with a previous era in which the expression of sexuality was inextricably linked to forms of religious mysticism and spirituality. (21) It is in precisely this area that we are able to find what is probably one of the sensitive differences in the ultimate response to eroticism in the cases of Riba and Ferrater. Given that Riba could ultimately reconcile himself felicitously with the security of his intense religious faith, his poems naturally exuded the confidence of hope and overall happiness which were clearly denied to his acolyte. As Lois McNay explains pertinently "in the secular, contemporary world, sexuality is ‘denatured’ in so far as it does not aspire to mystical union or an unknowable limit. Rather it is the sexual act itself that marks its own limits…Nevertheless, despite the erosion of the centrality of the sacred in everyday existence, sexuality or eroticism remains one of the few realms in which the residual possibility of transgression remains." (p. 42) Ferrater, the modern man, the victim of this denatured eroticism, only has the short relief of the sporadic erotic experience in the long wait for continuity through death.
The confirmation of this view in Ferrater’s work constitutes one of his poignant poems on this subject, "On mating", written in English in 1966, which summarises his own theory of eroticism and sexuality:
Freud’s postulation of a death instinct in his later writings, an impulse to return to a pre-organic state of quietude, provoked much scepticism, despite its coincidence with Schopenhauer’s celebrated affirmation that the goal of life was death. (23) Subsequently, Bataille was to relate this same equation to the idea to eroticism in 1958. Indeed, the notion is reiterated to such an extent it comes to punctuate his discourse: "The final sense of eroticism is death" (p.144). "If the union of two lovers comes about through love, it involves the idea of death, murder or suicide. This aura of death is what denotes passion" (p.20). "Men as discontinuous beings try to maintain their separate existences, but death, or at least the contemplation of death, brings them back to continuity". (p.83) As a result, he is prompted to enquire: "In the hushed silence of that moment, the moment of death... Where would we be without language?"; and he concludes significantly that "It [Language] has made us what we are. It alone can show us the sovereign moment at the farthest point of being where it can no longer act as currency. In the end the articulate man confesses his own impotence". (p.276)
Like Bataille, Ferrater will focus in his art on the relationships between passion, eroticism, death and poetry. For the Frenchman, "Violence, and death signifying violence, have a double meaning. On the one hand the horror of death drives us off, for we prefer life; on the other an element at once solemn and terrifying fascinates us and disturbs us profoundly" (p.45). His Catalan disciple also denounces the effects that violence has had in the world that surrounds him and, in keeping with what was observed earlier with regard to erotic play, it is through poetry that an outlet is found for frustration ("Poema inacabat", lines 737-41):
Bataille explains that "Assenting to life even in death is a challenge to death, in emotional eroticism as well as physical, a challenge to death through indifference to death. Life is a door into existence: life may be doomed but the continuity of existence is not. The nearness of this continuity and its heady quality are more powerful than the thought of death. To begin with, the first turbulent surge of erotic feeling overwhelms all else, so that gloomy considerations of the fate in store for our discontinuous selves are forgotten. And then, beyond the intoxication of youth, we achieve the power to look death in the face and to perceive in death the pathway to unknowable and incomprehensible continuity: that path is the secret of eroticism and eroticism alone can reveal it." (pp.23-24) Whilst in Ferrater’s poetry we can find clear evidence of the desire to live to the full, we also witness a refusal to come to terms with life in a threatening environment where even eroticism is often denied ("Els inocents", lines 23 - 29):
Similarly, in "Petita guerra", he lets us share in the witnessing of a life in which the only possible source of pleasure, the flesh, is being systematically destroyed (lines 40-43):
In these circumstances there is an almost desperate desire to cling on to life whilst the inevitable passing of time and the relentless process of ageing are forever a threat to it ("Un pas insegur", lines 9-12):
Rather than a drive towards the risk-taking and death-daring activities which so much fuelled the creation of the Ferrater myth, in the poems we find a reminder of the things that brought him happiness: the survival of the basic animal in us which makes a Sunday enjoyable ("Diumenge" lines 25-28); a strong even if misplaced passion ("El lleopard"); or a comment on the variety of erotic encounters ranging from sex in its most basic terms to idealised beauty, which share the common end of harmony, even if brief and turgid ("S-Bann" lines 18-24 & 67 -88, and "Mala memòria" lines 10-12). The permanent question is, as Ferrater puts it in "Poema inacabat" (lines 499-501):
Sometimes these are expressed in medieval mode, as in the poem "Tam gratumst mihi" (lines 4-8), where the poet-lover identifies himself with the book that goes back to the hands of the women he loved. This also shows the importance placed by Ferrater upon literature as a means of perpetuity:
Death itself is rarely mentioned other than as a consummated fact; as an inevitable consequence of the Civil war. As seen in the celebrated piece "In memoriam"(lines 43-58), for instance, the execution of the PE instructor, el Guiu, is narrated in a very matter-of-fact manner. More often, however, we find that death is displaced towards the description of inner feelings such as the disappearance of experience into oblivion. In some cases this is a gentle experience ("Tres llimoners", lines 22-25):
In other cases, the displacement is achieved by showing nature’s power over matter as a cruel reminder of the inevitability of death ("El ponent excessiu", lines 4-7):
Probably the best examples of the dilemma faced by the author can be found in the following section of "Poema inacabat" (lines 516-21) and in the piece "Posseït". In the former, the idea of suicide is contemplated but, very much in the Bataille mode, discarded in favour of sex:
In "Posseït", however, death is at the same time equated to peace and yet also unable to deliver it. Significantly, one of the lovers dies and the other continues in the quest for still more sexual fruition:
A final and crucial element in Ferrater’s ideology is the link between eroticism and poetry, seen most clearly in his evaluation of the ability of literature in general and of the Catalan language in particular as a means for the individual to reach harmony. In Bataille’s view, "in modern life, transgression becomes an experience located primarily in language... The implosion of a rational discourse is exemplified in certain types of literature, beginning with the work of De Sade which marks the birth of modern literature where language is both ‘excessive’ and ‘deficient’. Excessive, because words are accumulated in a potentially infinite number of permutations in an attempt to describe ‘the living body of desire’. Deficient, because the ineffability of desire escapes representation in language, thus shattering the illusion of language as a transparent form of communication." (26) Here we can establish a link between Bataille, Ferrater’s interests and the fact that the poet felt that Catalan as a language affected his capturing of passion in poetry. Indeed, these issues, formulated in slightly different terms, were addressed both, with regard to his own work and that of others. Talking about Carles Riba, for instance, he stated: "allò de què es tracta són les ruptures de continuïtat per xoc emotiu en un sentit o en un altre, les ruptures de continuïtat en la vida d’un home. D’aquestes ruptures de continuïtat, Riba tracta sobretot de dues, és a dir, de ruptures de dues menes: la ruptura produïda per la temptació eròtica, i, molt curiosament (aquest tema és molt ambivalent en ell), la ruptura produïda per la creació poètica, precisament. És a dir, que ell sent, a l’hora d’escriure un poema (justament, com que la seva ambició és, tan enormement, de desprendre’s del seu egoisme personal, de la pura concreció de la seva experiència, i llançar-se a la creació d’una cosa autònoma), sent això com un equivalent a la temptació amorosa, del desig de fondre’s en una altra vida i de renunciar a la identificació immediata de la pròpia vida." (27) Here, even though the critic talks in terms of life as continuity and sex and poetry as discontinuity, the ideas he puts forward are very close to Bataille’s. Furthermore, talking about his own experience in his closing note to Da nuces pueris he explains: "Un dels motius que em fa escriure poesies és el desig de veure fins on podem aixecar l’energia emotiva del nostre llenguatge, i això ens du a escollir temes insidiosos, molt aptes a subornar-nos i a obtenir de nosaltres un excés de participació."
However, even though the potential of such an approach is duly appreciated, his inclination goes against succumbing to the "excessive" quality of language: "Però no hi hem de consentir, i l’obligació primera del poeta davant d’un tema, és de posar-lo al seu lloc, sense contemplacions." (28) Indeed, these "insidious matters" allow for the locus of transgression to be moved from a buried experience at the margins of the social realm to a potential experience immanent in the universal medium of language. As stated by Lois McNay, "with the faltering of language, the outline of a form of thought that is no longer governed by a putative rational subjectivity may be discerned. Transgression is redefined in an anti-essentialist manner as signifying nothing in itself except the need permanently to push experience to its limits to discover new ways of being." (29) This approach accounts for the sometimes desperate insistence with which each moment is treasured and the constant need to live for the moment, mentioned above.
Both in Ferrater and in Riba’s passionate experience the poet captures or even steals this passion from the object of his erotic fulfilment and it is only through language that it survives:
Both the importance and the risks of literature are highlighted by Ferrater in the poem "Literatura" which is interpreted by Dolors Oller as follows: "Que la literatura, essent com és una formalització de l’experiència, sempre sorgeix de la temptació per l’inefable. De la necessitat de trobar un acord entre l’essència i l’aparença, de sacralitzar la matèria, la seva matèria, en un disseny permanent, ordenat i tendint a la perfecció. La temptació per l’inefable, seria, doncs, causa i destí de la literatura. I, en definitiva, la seva única salvació." (31) Nevertheless, despite their importance, language and literature are not the final answer. Ferrater, as has been seen, held that we should put language in its place without inflating it whilst acknowledging, at the same time, its usefulness. For Bataille: "The supreme questioning is that to which the answer is the supreme moment of eroticism that of eroticism's silence. How should one reach the heights if language did not point the way? But descriptive language becomes meaningless at the decisive instant when the stirrings of transgression itself take over from the discursive account of transgression, and one supreme moment follows these successive apparitions. In the hushed silence of that one moment, that moment of death, the unity of being is revealed through the intensity of those experience in which truth stands clear of life and of its objects." (32) With regard to Ferrater, the link between passion and poetry is clear; or at least Joaquim Molas’s declaration seems to reveal this truth: "Una vegada, tot dinant a Sant Cugat, li vaig preguntar per què havia deixat d’escriure poemes. Va contestar-me: Perquè ja no tinc res més a dir." (33)
As Bataille has it, "Poetry leads to the same place as all forms of eroticism - to the blending and fusion of separate objects. It leads us to eternity, it leads us to death, and through death to continuity." (34) The lack of detailed information on the circumstances surrounding Ferrater’s death make it difficult to know whether his suicide was a wish for harmony or an act of despair. His poetry has nonetheless become a precious legacy which offers us a sense of continuity still palpable today. It is in this respect that his recourse to the theme of eroticism becomes fully justified, representing not only ludic yet charged speculation but also an underlying philosophical message which was to become of real import in the Europe of the early 1960s and which placed him amongst the most innovative and international poets of his generation.