Presentation Speech by Dr. Karl Ragnar Gierow, of the Swedish Academy
Translation from the Swedish text
Your Majesties, Your Royal Highnesses, Ladies and Gentlemen,
This year’s Nobel prizewinner in literature, Vicente Aleixandre, is hard to understand and in one way controversial. The latter may be due to the former. For even his devoted admirers offer varying interpretations of his poetry. It is doubtful if anyone has yet been able to sum it up properly, one reason being that fifty years after Aleixandre’s debut his writing still seems to be forging ahead. His two most remarkable collections of poems, the twin crowns of his career to date, appeared in 1968 (Poemas de la consumación) and 1974 (Diálogos del conocimiento).
On one point, however, all are agreed: Aleixandre’s place and importance in the spiritual life of Spain. In the history of literature he is part of the current that broke into Spanish poetry in the 1920s with unequalled breadth and force. One of the names of the vigorous avantgarde was the Pleiades. It is all the more suitable as no one with the naked eye can make out the correct number in the group of stars that we colloquially call The Seven Sisters. There are many more of them, and in the firmament of Spanish poetry these Pleiades are usually numbered at around twenty-five – a brilliant cluster of lyric talent. Among those who came to shine the brightest and the longest is Vicente Aleixandre.
The affinity of the new style with French surrealism is striking. There are those in Spain who prefer to call it apparent. They are sometimes reluctant to stress the points in common, asserting their unconformity all the more strongly. The Spanish declaration of independence is not without ground. The Second Golden Age, which is another name for the breakthrough and epoch of the Pleiades, referred directly and expressly to the first, Spain’s century-long age of greatness, the baroque. When the young guard banded together to strike their big blow they chose as a standard to celebrate the 300th anniversary of Luis de Góngora, the creator of the hair-splitting “estilo culto” who originated and gave his name to the ingeniously and extravagantly ornamented gongorism. Virtuose pastiches on Spanish baroque poetry in frills, and beside them folksong variations of rustic themes, were characteristic elements in the renewal during the 1920s south of the Pyrenees, and they distinguish it undeniably from the manifestos up by the Seine.
When this vital generation of poets, with Lorca at the head, stormed the Spanish Parnassus, Aleixandre too was busy with his pen. He was then writing about the need of rationalization and pension and insurance problems on the Spanish railways, where he was employed. But in 1925 something happened which was to determine the whole of his existence and still does today. He was taken seriously ill with renal tuberculosis. It changed his life in two ways. He had to leave his employment and he could take another position with communications of a different kind: those of poetry. When the Góngora anniversary was celebrated he had not yet published his first volume of verse, but he had printed poems in the Pleiades’ magazines and was already a member of the group. He was perhaps the one least concerned about the connexion with “the golden century” and to that extent also the one who came closest to the new doctrines from Paris. This may be the background to a somewhat defiant declaration by one of his poet friends that Spanish surrealism had given French surrealism what it had always lacked – a great poet: Vicente Aleixandre. But he has never been a mediator in this literary frontier dispute. Against the basic article of faith “l’ecriture automatique” he has reiterated his belief in “la conciencia creadora”, creative consciousness. He went his own way.
In extremely simplified terms it is the way from a cosmic vision to a realistic close-up. One of Aleixandre’s conclusive collections of poems is called La destrucción o el amor (Destruction or Love). The title is thematically pregnant with meaning and certain Aleixandre connoisseurs have taken it to mean an Either-Or, to quote Kierkegaard: without love all that is left to us is destruction. But the word “or” can mean not only two alternative contrasts but also an explanatory addition, and what the title then says is: Destruction, in other words love. It would agree better with the perspective of creation in its entirety that these poems, and those that followed, aim at depicting and that Aleixandre has been striving for ever since his debut with Ambito. “Man is an element in the cosmos and in his being does not differ from it”, as he himself says. Love is destruction, but destruction is a result of or an act of love, of self-effacement, of man’s innate yearning to be received back into the world order from which, as a living being, he has been separated and cast out – “segregado – degradado”. His decease therefore has nothing of despair at a meaningful life meeting with a meaningless death. Only with death does life acquire its meaning and is complete; it is the last birth, Nacimiento último, as one of the later collections of poems is called. Aleixandre does not hesitate to carry his vision to the paradoxical extreme: “Man does not exist.” In other words: so long as he is alive, he is actually unborn.
But out of the conviction that man is an element in a cosmic whole grows of necessity the awareness that our short life on earth is also a part of the same course of events. It is that knowledge which has brought Aleixandre back to “the tellurian world”, as he calls it, given his continued writings a proximity to life, an openness and directness which formerly he was not capable of or did not strive for, and has made his last two books, mentioned in the introduction to this presentation, the peak of his work hitherto. On his way there, but conscious of where he was heading, he wrote in Historia del corazón a poem called Entre dos oscuridades un relámpago, A Lightning Between Two Darknesses. In it is the earth, in it is man, and life must be affirmed so long as we have it. Intentionally or not one of the gifted dreamers of our time here quotes the words of another visionary when the meaning of the play is to be explained:
“We are such stuff as dreams are made on,
and our little life is rounded with a sleep.”
Outwardly too Aleixandre went his own way. When the civil war came he was bedridden and listened to the bombs exploding. Lorca was murdered, other poet friends died in prison, and when the remainder went into exile at the end of the war, a constellation scattered to the four winds, they had to leave the invalid behind. But mentally as well Aleixandre survived the regime. He never submitted to it and went on with his writing, frail but unbroken, thereby becoming the rallying-point and source of power in Spain’s spiritual life that we today have the pleasure of honouring.
The Swedish Academy deeply regrets that owing to his state of health Mr Aleixandre can’t be here today. But as his representative we greet his friend and younger colleague, Mr Justo Jorge Padron, and I ask you, Mr Padron, to convey to Mr Aleixandre our warmest congratulations and to receive the Nobel Prize for Literature, awarded to him, from the hands of His Majesty the King.
Their work and discoveries range from the Earth’s climate and our sense of touch to efforts to safeguard freedom of expression.
See them all presented here.