Camilo José Cela

Nobel Lecture



Nobel Lecture, December 8, 1989


Eulogy to the Fable

Distinguished Academicians,

My old friend and mentor Pío Baroja – who did not receive the Nobel Prize because the bright light of success does not always fall on the righteous – had a clock on his wall. Around the face of that clock there were words of enlightenment, a saying that made you tremble as the hands of the clock moved round. It said “Each hour wounds; the last hour kills”. In my case, many chimes have been rung in my heart and soul by the hands of that clock – which never goes back – and today, with one foot in the long life behind me and the other in hope for the future, I come before you to say a few words about the spoken word and to reflect in a spirit of goodwill and hopefully to good avail on liberty and literature. I do not rightly know at what point one crosses the threshold into old age but to be on the safe side I take refuge in the words of Don Francisco de Quevedo who said: “We all wish to reach a ripe old age, but none of us are prepared to admit that we are already there”.

However one cannot ignore the obvious. I also know that time marches inexorably onwards. So I will say what I have to say here and now without resorting to either inspiration or improvisation, since I dislike both.

Finding myself here today, addressing you from this dais which is so difficult to reach, I begin to wonder whether the glitter of words – my words in this case – has not dazzled you as to my real merit which I feel is a poor thing compared to the high honour you have conferred upon me. It is not difficult to write in Spanish; the Spanish language is a gift from the gods which we Spaniards take for granted. I take comfort therefore in the belief that you wished to pay tribute to a glorious language and not to the humble writer who uses it for everything it can express: the joy and the wisdom of Mankind, since literature is an art form of all and for all, although written without deference, heeding only the voiceless, anonymous murmur of a given place and time.

I write from solitude and I speak from solitude. Mateo Alemán in his Cuzmán de Alfarache and Francis Bacon in his essay Of Solitude, – both writing more or less at the same period – said that the man who seeks solitude has much of the divine and much of the beast in him. However I did not seek solitude. I found it. And from my solitude I think, work, and live – and I believe that I write and speak with almost infinite composure and resignation. In my solitude I constantly keep in mind the principle expounded by Picasso, another old friend and mentor, that no lasting work of art can be achieved without great solitude. As I go through life giving the impression that I am belligerent, I can speak of solitude without embarrassment and even with a certain degree of thankful, if painful, acceptance.

The greatest reward is to know that one can speak and emit articulate sounds and utter words that describe things, events and emotions.

When defining man, philosophers have traditionally used the standard medium of close genus and specific difference that is to say reference to our animal status and the origin of differences. From Aristotle’s zoon politikon to Descartes’ res cogitans such reference has been an essential means of distinguishing man from beast. But however much moral philosophers may challenge what I’m going to say, I maintain that it would not be difficult to find abundant evidence identifying language as the definitive source of human nature which, for better or worse, sets us apart from all other animals.

We are different from other animals, although since Darwin we know that we have evolved from them. The evolution of language is thus a fundamental fact which we cannot ignore.

The phylogenesis of the human species covers a process of evolution in which the organs that produce and identify sounds and the brain which makes sense of those sounds develop over a long period of time which includes the birth of Mankind. No subsequent phenomena, neither El Cantar de Mío Cid nor El Quijote, nor quantum theory, can compare in importance to the first time that the most basic things were given a name. However for obvious reasons I am not going to dwell here on the evolution of language in its primeval and fundamental sense. Rather I will deal with its secondary and accidental but relatively more important meaning for those of us who were born into a society whose tradition is more literary than secular.

Ethnologists such as the distinguished A. S. Diamond believe that the history of language, of all languages, follows a pattern in which at the very beginning sentences are simple and primitive but go on to become more complicated in terms of syntactic and semantic variations. By extrapolating from this historically verifiable trend, it can be deduced that this increasing complexity evolves from the initial stage where communication relies mainly on the verb, building up to the present situation where it is nouns, adjectives and adverbs that give flavour and depth to the sentence. If this theory is correct and if we apply a little imagination, we might conclude that the first word to be used was a verb in its most immediate and urgent tense, namely the imperative.

And indeed the imperative still retains considerable importance in communication. It is a difficult tense to use. It must be handled with care since it requires a highly detailed knowledge of the rules of the game which are not always straightforward. A badly-placed imperative can bring about the exact opposite of the desired objective. John Langshaw Austin’s famous triple distinction (locutionary, illocutionary and perlocutionary language) is an erudite demonstration of the thesis that perlocutionary language tends to provoke specific behaviour on the part of the interlocutor. It is useless to issue an order if the person to whom it is addressed dissembles and ends up doing whatever he likes.

Thus from zoon politikon to res cogitans sufficient distinctions have been drawn between the beast that grazes and the man that sings albeit not always in well-measured tones.

In Plato’s Dialogue which bears his name, Cratylus hides Heraclitus among the folds of his tunic. The philosopher Democritus through his interlocutor Hermogenes speaks of the concepts of fullness and emptiness. The same can be said of Protagoras the anti-geometrician who irreverently maintained that “Man is the measure of all things”: what they are and how they are, what they are not and how they are not.

Cratylus was concerned with language – what it is and what it is not – and developed those ideas at some length in his discourse with Hermogenes. Cratylus believes that what things are called is naturally related to what they are. Things are born or created or are discovered or invented. From their very beginning they contain essentially the exact term which identifies them and distinguishes them from everything else. He seems to be trying to tell us that this distinction is unique and comes from the same ovum as the thing itself. Except in the reasoned world of the etymologist, a dog has always been a dog in all the ancient languages and love has been love since first it was felt. The boundaries of paradox in the thoughts of Cratylus in contrast to Heraclitus’ hypotheses are hidden in the dovetailed indivisibility or unity of opposites, their harmony (day and night), the constant movement and reaffirmation of their substance. The same is true of words as things in their own right (there is no dog without the cat and no love without hate).

Conversely Hermogenes thought that words were mere conventions established by humans for the reasonable purpose of understanding one another. Man is confronted with things or they are presented to him. Faced with something new, man gives it a name. The significance of things is not the spring in the woods but the well dug by man. The parabolic frontier of the senses, and of expression, as expounded by Hermogenes and concealed by Democritus and at times by Protagoras, comes up time and again: is man who measures and designates all things generic or individual? Is the measurement of those things a mere epistemological concept? Are things only physical matter or are they also feelings and concepts? By reducing being to illusion, Hermogenes kills off truth in the cradle; the contradictory conclusion that the only possible propositions are those which man formulates by himself and to himself, renders real what is true and what is not true. You will recall that according to Victor Henry’s famous aporia man can give a name to things but he cannot take them over; he can change the language but he cannot change it any way he wishes. Referring in perhaps overcautious terms to the exactitude of names Plato seems to sympathise obliquely with Cratylus’ position: things are called what they have to be called (an organic and valid theory that is on the verge of being acknowledged in pure reason as a principle) and not what man decides they should be called according to which way the wind is blowing at any given time (this being a changing or even fluctuating corollary, dependent on the changing suppositions present at the same time as, or prior to, a given thing).

This attitude, originally romantic and consequently demagogical, was the starting point for the Latin poets, headed by Horace. It gave rise to all the ills which have afflicted us in this field since that time and which we have not been able to remedy. Ars Poetica, verses 70 to 72, sings of the prevalence of usage in the evolution of language (not always a welcome development):

Multa renascentur quae iam cecidere cadentque
quae nunc sunt in honore vocabula, si volet usus,
quem penes arbitrium est et ius et norma loquendi.

This time-bomb, however pleasing in its charity, had several complex consequences leading finally to the supposition that language is made by the people – and inevitably by the people alone – and that it is futile to try and subject language to the precise and reasonable rules of logic. This dangerous assertion by Horace that usage determines what is right and acceptable in language created a rubbish-dump clogged with overgrown efforts in which the shortcut became the highway along which man progressed bearing the banner of language blowing freely and trembling in the breeze, obstinately continuing to confuse victory with the subservience inherent in its very image.

While Horace was partly right (and we should not deny that), he was also wrong in a number of ways and we should not try to hide that either. But we should also acknowledge the contribution of Cratylus and Hermogenes by refining their principles. Cratylus’ position falls within what is referred to as natural or ordinary or spoken language, which is the product of the constant use of a historical and psychological path, while Hermogenes’ proposition fits into what we understand as artificial or specialized language or jargon, deriving from a more or less formal arrangement or from some formal method based on logic but with no historical or psychological tradition behind it – at least at the time it is conceived. The first Wittgenstein, the author of the Tractatus, is a celebrated modern exponent of Hermogenes’ proposition. Thus in that sense it would not be illogical to talk of Cratylian or natural or human language and of Hermogenean or artificial or parahuman language. Like Horace my point of reference is obviously the former, the language of life and literature, without technical or defensive obstacles. Max Scheler – and indeed phenomenologists generally – is also referring to what I will now call Cratylian language when he talks about language as an indication or announcement or expression, as is Karl Bühler when he classifies the three functions of language as symptom, signal and symbol.

It goes without saying that Hermogenean language naturally accommodates its original artificiality. On the other hand Cratylian language does not adapt to extraneous territory where there are often hidden pitfalls alien to its essential transparency.

It is dangerous to admit that in the final analysis natural, Cratylian language is the offspring of a magical marriage between the people and chance. Because people do not create language they determine its development. We can say, albeit with considerable reservations, that people solve to a certain extent the puzzle of language by giving names to things; but they also adulterate and hybridize it. If people were not subject to those hidden pitfalls referred to earlier this issue would be much more urgent and linear. What is not put forward but which nevertheless lies hidden within the true heart of the matter is one and the same and already determined; and neither I nor anyone else can change that.

The Cratylian language, the structure or system described by Ferdinand de Saussure as “langue”, is the common language of a community (or rather more in than of a community), is formed and authenticated by writers and regulated and generally orientated by Academies. These three estates – the community, the writer and the Academies – do not always fulfil their respective duties. Very often they invade and interfere in other areas. It would appear that neither the Academies, nor the writers nor the community are happy with their own roles. While not competent to do so they prefer to define the role of others which, perhaps even rightly in principle, will always be unclear and ill-defined and, even worse, end up dissipating and obscuring the subject of their attention, namely the language and the verb which should be essentially transparent. The algebraic and mere instrument with no value other than its usefulness, in the final analysis as in Unamuno’s Love and Pedagogy.

The final determining factor, the State, which is neither the community nor the writers nor the Academies, conditions and constrains everything, intervenes in a~thousand different ways (administrative jargon, government pronouncements, television, etc.) compounding, more by bad example than by inhibition, disorder and disarray, chaos and confusion.

But no-one says anything about popular, literary, academic, state and other excesses. Language evolves not in its own way which in principle would be appropriate, but is rather pushed around by the opposing forces surrounding it.

The community to whom Horace’s lines are recited eventually believe that this is how a language should evolve and tries to incorporate phrases, styles and expressions that are neither intuitive nor the product of their subconscious – which at least might produce something valid or plausible – but rather deliberately and consciously invented, or, even worse, imported (at the wrong time and against sound common sense).

Writers, obviously with some exceptions, follow the often defective usage in their own environment and introduce and sanction expressions that are cumbersome and, worse still, divorced from the essential spirit of the language.

The Academies’ problems stem from the basis on which they operate: as institutions they tend to be conservative and afraid of being challenged.

The erosion of the Cratylian language by Hermogenean influences is becoming more pronounced and there is a danger that it will desiccate that living language and render the natural language artificial. As I have already said, this threat is caused by invented, gratuitously incorporated or inopportunely resurrected or revitalised language.

There seems to be some political reason behind the impetus that now leads, as it has in the past, gaily to abandon the principles of a language in the face of a blunt attack by those besieging it. In my view the risks outweigh the possible benefits – which are somewhat Utopian – that might accrue at some future unspecified date. While I am far from being a purist, I would like to call on writers in the first instance and then on Academies and on States to a lesser degree to put an end to the chaos. There is undoubtedly a continuity in language that supersedes any classifications we wish to establish but that does not constitute grounds for tearing down the natural frontiers of language. If we allow that we would be admitting to a defeat that has not yet taken place.

Let us rally our genius in defence of language, all languages, and let us never forget that confusing procedure with the rule of Law, just as observing the letter rather than the spirit of the Law, always leads to injustice which is both the source and consequence of disorder.

Thought is intrinsically linked to language. Moreover, freedom is also probably linked to certain linguistic and conceptual patterns. Together they provide the broad framework for all human endeavour; those that seek to explore and expand human frontiers, also those that seek to undermine the status of man. Thought and liberty are found in the minds of heroes and villains alike.

But this generalisation obscures the need for greater precision if we are to arrive at an understanding of the real meaning of what it is to think and to be free. Insofar as we are able to identify the phenomena that take place in the mind, thinking for man means thinking about being free. There has been much argument regarding the extent to which this freedom or liberty is something concrete or whether it is just another slick phenomenon produced by the human mind. But such argument is probably futile. A wise Spanish philosopher has pointed out that the illusion and the real image of freedom are one and the same thing. If man is not free, if he is bound by chains that psychology, biology, sociology and history seek to identify, as a human being he also carries within himself the idea, which may be an illusion but which is absolutely universal, that he is free. And if we wish to be free we will organise our world in much the same way as we would if we were free.

The architectural design on which we have tried to build successfully or otherwise the complex framework of our societies, contains the basic principle of human freedom and it is in the light of that principle that we value, exalt, denigrate, castigate and suffer: the aura of liberty is the spirit enshrined in our moral codes, political principles and legal systems.

We know that we think. We think because we are free. The link between thought and freedom is like a fish biting its own tail or rather a fish that wants to get hold of its own tail; because being free is both a direct consequence of and an essential condition for thought. Through thought man can detach himself as much as he wants from the laws of nature; he can accept and submit to those laws, for example like the chemist who has gone beyond the boundaries of phlogiston theory will base his success and prestige on such acceptance and submission. In thought however, the realms of the absurd lie side by side with the empire of logic because man does not think only in terms of the real and the possible. The mind can shatter its own machinations into a thousand pieces and rearrange them into a totally different image.

Thus one can have as many rational interpretations of the world based on empirical principles as the thinker wishes primarily on the basis of the promise of freedom. Free thinking in this narrow sense is that antithesis of the empirical world and finds expression in the fable. Thus the capacity to create fables would appear to be the third element in the human status – the others being thought and freedom – and this capacity can turn things round in such a way that things which before they became the subject of a fable were not even untruths become truths.

Through the process of thought man begins to discover hidden truth in the world, he can aim to create his own different world in whatever terms he wishes through the medium of the fable. Thus truth, thought, freedom and fable are interlinked in a complicated and on occasion suspect relationship. It is like a dark passageway with several side-turnings going off in the wrong direction; a labyrinth with no way out. But the element of risk has always been the best justification for embarking on an adventure.

The fable and scientific truth are not forms of thought. They are rather heterogeneous entities which cannot possibly be compared with one another since they are subject to completely different rules and techniques. Consequently, it is not appropriate to brandish the standard of literature in the struggle to free men’s minds. Literature should rather be regarded as a counterweight to the newfound slavish submission to science. I would go further and say that I believe that a prudent and careful distinction must be drawn between those forms of science and literature which join together to confine man within rigid limits which deny all ideas of freedom, and that we must be daring and offset those forms by other scientific and literary experiences aimed at engendering hope. By unreservedly trusting in the superiority of human freedom and dignity, rather than suspect truths which dissolve in a sea of presumption, would be an indication that we have progressed. However in itself it is not enough. If we have learned anything it is that science is incapable of justifying aspirations to freedom and that on the contrary it rests on crutches that tilt it in exactly the opposite direction. Science should be based solely on the most profound exigencies of human freedom and will. That is the only means of enabling science to break away from utilitarianism which cannot withstand the pitfalls of quantity and measurement. This leads us to the need to recognise that literature and science although heterogeneous cannot remain isolated in a prophylactic endeavour to define areas of influence and this for two reasons, namely the status of language (that basic instrument of thought) as well as the need to define the limits of and distinguish between that which is commendable and laudable and that which must be denounced by all committed individuals.

I believe that literature as an instrument for creating fables is founded on two basic pillars which provide it with strength to ensure that literary endeavour is worthwile. Firstly aesthetics, which impose a requirement on an essay, poem, drama or comedy to maintain certain minimum standards which distinguish it from the sub-literary world in which creativity cannot keep pace with the readers’ emotions. From socialist reality to the innumerable inconstancies of would-be experimentalists, wherever aesthetic talent is lacking the resulting sub-literature becomes a monotonous litany of words incapable of creating a genuine worthwhile fable.

The second pillar on which literary endeavour rests is ethics which complements aesthetics and which has a lot to do with all that has been said up to now regarding thought and freedom. Of course ethics and aesthetics are in no way synonymous nor do they have the same value. Literature can balance itself precariously on aesthetics alone – art for art’s sake – and it could be that aesthetics in the long run may be a more comprehensive concept than ethical commitment. We can still appreciate Homer’s verses and medieval epic canticles although we may have forgotten or at least no longer automatically link them with ethical behaviour in ancient Greek cities or in feudal Europe. However art for art’s sake is by definition an extremely difficult undertaking and one which always runs the risk of being used for purposes which distort its real meaning.

I do believe that ethical principle is the element which makes a work of literature worthy of playing the noble role of creating a fable. But I must explain clearly what I mean because the literary fable as a means of expressing the links between man’s capacity to think and the perhaps Utopian idea of being free cannot be based on just any kind of ethical commitment. My understanding is that a work of literature can only be subject to the ethical commitment of the person, the author, to his own idea of freedom. Of course no-one, not even the cleverest and most balanced literary author, can ever (or rather cannot always) overcome his humanity; anyone can have a blind spot and freedom is a suffficiently ambiguous concept and many blinding errors can be committed in its name. Nor can an aesthetic sense be acquired from a textbook. Thus, the literary fable must be based on both a sense of ethics and a commitment to aesthetics. That is the only way it can acquire a significance that will transcend ephemeral fashions or confused appreciation that can quickly change. The history of man is changing and tortuous. Consequently, it is diffficult to anticipate ethical or aesthetic sensibilities. There are writers who are so tuned in to the feeling of their time that they become magnificent exponents of the prevailing collective trend and whose work is a conditional reflex. Others take on the thankless and not suffciently applauded task of carrying freedom and human creativity further along the road, even if in the end that too may lead nowhere.

This is the only way in which literature can fulfil its role of closely identifying its commitment to the human status and, if we wish to be absolutely precise in this thesis, the only endeavour that can unreservedly be called true literature. However, human society cannot be linked to geniuses, saints and heroes alone.

In this task of seeking out freedom, the fable has the benefit of the well-known characteristic of the intrinsic malleability of the literary story. The fable does not need to subject itself to anything that might restrict its scope, novelty and element of surprise. Thus, unlike any other form of thought it can wave the Utopian banner high. Perhaps that is why the most avid authors of treatises of political philosophy have opted to use the literary story to convey Utopian propositions that would not have found ready acceptance outside the realms of fiction at the time they were written. There are no limits to the Utopianism that the fable can express since by its very nature the fable itself is based on Utopianism.

However, the advantages of literary expression are not confined to the ease with which it can convey Utopian propositions. The intrinsic plasticity of the story, the malleability of the situations, personalities and events it creates provide a superb foundry from which one can, without undue risk, set up an entire factory, or, to put it another way, a laboratory in which men conduct experiments on human behaviour in optimum conditions. But the fable does not restrict itself to expressing the Utopian. It can also analyse carefully what it means and what its consequences are in the myriad different alternative situations ranging from learned prediction to the absurd that creative thought can produce.

The role of literature as an experimental laboratory has been often highlighted in science fiction; speculation about the future that has subsequently been realised. Critics have heaped praise on novelists who have a talent for predicting in their fables the basic coordinates which subsequently have been substantiated. But the real usefulness of the fable as a test-tube lies not in its anecdotal capacity for accurately predicting something technical but as a means of conveying in a timely, direct or negative fashion all possible facets of a world that may be possible now or in the future. It is the search for human commitment, for tragic experiences, that can shed light on the ambiguity of blindly choosing options in the face of the demands placed upon us by our world, now or in the future, that turns the fresco of literature into an experimental laboratory. The value of literature as a means of carrying out experiments on behaviour has little to do with prediction since human behaviour only has a past, present and future in a very specific, narrow sense. There are, however, basic aspects of our nature which have an impressive permanency about them and which cause us to be deeply moved by an emotional story from a completely different age to the one we live in. It is this “universal man” that is the most prized figure in literary fable, an experimental workshop in which there are no frontiers and no ages. It is the Quixotes, the Othellos, the Don Juans that illustrate to us that the fable is a game of chess played over and over again, a thousand times with whatever pieces destiny throws up at any given time.

In absolute terms it might appear that this detracts from the so-called freedom I am advocating and indeed that would be the case if one did not take account of the role of that imperfect, voluble and confused personality, the author, the man. The magic of Shylock would never have emerged without the genius of Bard, whose unreliable memory was of course far more inconsistent than that of the characters to whom he gave life and to whom in the end he denied death. And what of those anonymous scholars and jugglers whom we remember only for the result produced by their talents. There is undoubtedly something that must be remembered over whatever sociology or history tries to impose upon us and that is that thus far and insofar we can conceive of the future of mankind, works of literature are very much subject to the needs of the author; that is to say to a single source of those ethical and aesthetic insights I referred to earlier, an author who acts as a filter for the current which undoubtedly emanates from the whole surrounding society. It is perhaps this link between Man and Society that best expresses the very paradox of being a human being proud of his individuality, and at the same time tied to the community that surrounds him and from which he cannot disengage himself without risking madness. There is a moral here; the limitations of literature are precisely those of human nature and they show us that there is another status, identical in other ways, which is that of gods and demons. Our mind can imagine demiurges and the ease with which human beings invent religions clearly demonstrates that this is so. Our capacity to create fables provides a useful literary means of illustrating those demiurges, as indeed we have done constantly since Homer wrote his verses. But even that cannot lead us to mistake our nature or put out once and for all the tenuous flame of freedom that burns in the innermost being of the slave who can be forced to obey but not to love, to suffer and die but not to change his most profound thoughts.

When the proud, blind rationalist renewed in enlightened minds the biblical temptation, the last maxim of which promised “You will be as gods” he did not take account of the fact that Man had already gone much further down that road. The misery and the pride that for centuries had marked Man’s efforts to be like the gods had already taught Man a better reason; that through effort and imagination they could become Men. For my part, I must say proudly that in this latter task, much of which still remains to be accomplished, the literary fable has always been, and in all circumstances proved to be, a decisive tool; a weapon that can cleave the way forward in the endless march to freedom.

Translated by Mary Penney.

From Nobel Lectures, Literature 1981-1990, Editor-in-Charge Tore Frängsmyr, Editor Sture Allén, World Scientific Publishing Co., Singapore, 1993

Copyright © The Nobel Foundation 1989

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