Juan Ramón Jiménez (1881-1958) was one of the greatest Spanish poets of the 20th century. He was acutely aware of the difficulties involved in conceiving of "the self," as the aphorisms below suggest, taken from Juan Ramón Jiménez, The Complete Perfectionist: A Poetics of Work, ed. & trans. by Christopher Maurer (New York: Currency Doubleday, 1997), pp. 25-33:
Through work we define ourselves, and upon our
work we leave our image. It is part of who we
are, and who we shall become.
One of Juan Ramón's best-known works in progress was his I, his public self. Over the years, in a series of vignettes and aphorisms (like the ones on the following pages), he portrayed himself as god, as nature, as his own disciple and master; in short, as a sufficient, alternate universe.
Like his poetry, that I, that public ego, was in a constant state of revision. In his earliest poses for the photographer, one sees the sad, dark eyes of a self- declared "martyr of Beauty," a "precision instrument for thinking and feeling." The well-trimmed beard and careful, elegant attire suggest a master of perfection: "My kingdom lles in the difficult." His look could be sharp and fastidious, and one or two of the photos might have been inscribed with the aphorism "Let us cultivate, before all else, the art of rejection!" On an imaginary calling card--one of many he handed to posterity--he engraved the words
THE UNIVERSAL ANDALUSIAN
In one of his autobiographical pen portraits, he catches
his reflection in a windowpane and finds that his head
"bears a stunning resemblance to those of Góngora,
Calderón, and Shakespeare."
Not surprisingly, his enemies called him Narcissus. They were right, he replied. All gods, and therefore all poets, fall in love with their own creation; and all male creators fall in love with the poetic, feminine side of themselves. But Narcissus, too, was misunderstood. What he saw in the water was an image not of himself but of completion and worldly beauty. When he peered into the pool, into the very "eye of Nature," Narcissus longed to escape from himself and dissolve into the universe: the noblest sort of metamorphosis. More stinging than "Narcissus," Juan Ramón thought, were the names his mother called him as a child: "Juanito the Demanding, Johnny the Question Mark, Little Mr. Spoiled, the Interrupter, John-John the Whimster, Mr. Invention, Madman, the Exaggerator, the Whiner, the Pest . . . the Prince."
Was it really him, that I, that column spiraling endlessly around itself? Why did he show it so insistently in public, in newspapers and poetry magazines, where it was sure to awaken hostility to his poems and lend itself to ridicule? There is no easy answer. He called himself both a Classic and a Romantic. The Romantic project of his life--his Work, his Obra)-- required a hero; and especially when he was young, the hero needed to be misunderstood, needed to overcome a rude and hostile world. Where no hostility existed, it had to be provoked, or teased into existence. He must have had great fun baiting others with those public "selves," chuckling at those who took them too seri- ously.
"In me, there are at least three I's," he once wrote. "I was always enough with two of them. But I want to be my third, the demanding one, el exijente." [The normal spelling is exigente, but one of Juan Ramón's eccentricities was to write j, and not q, before an i or an e.] So many Juan Ramóns, each in search of perfection! There is the I of some of the autobiographical aphorisms: the proud martyr of Beauty, the Universal Andalusian. There is the ecstatic I of the poems, the selfless Narcissus in love with solitude and the beauty of the world. And there is the worker, the humble me who wrote the other two into existence: the exijente who struggled endlessly to write perfectly. Life in exile brought another sort of self-fragmentation. In the United States and Puerto Rico, Juan Ramón heard himself speak in the tongue of another, and heard others speak in a tongue that was, and was not, his own.
Those selves are not easily reconciled and not easily separated. Who can say where one ends and another begins; which is public or which private? Identity is the deepest of human mysteries, and no identity is more mysterious than that of someone whose life is his art. "To live is to create, and re-create, ourselves," he wrote. No final solution is possible, no identity definitive. It would be harder to imagine an artist of greater integ- rity. But the notion of identity--of remaining "the very same" person--was alien to him. Here, as everywhere in his thought, perfection lies in succession, transition, metamorphosis: "To poetize is to become a new I each day in a new vision and expression of myself and of the world that I see, my world . . . This passing of the torch from one I to another, and from me to the person who follows me, these stages in a beautiful career of light, are the way I conceive of life."
Juan Ramón loved the idea of life as an orbit: "We are nothing but wanderers in orbit. We can never reach an end, never reach ourselves, unless the end is, simply, to run after ourselves."
One of the final names he gave himself was El Cansado de su Nombre (Tired of his Name). We can imagine that, in life and in art, Juan Ramón grew tired of himself and of his names; tired, even, of his pronouns.
I am not I.
I am this one
Walking beside me whom I do not see.
Whom at times I manage to visit,
And at other times I forget.
The one who remains silent when I talk,
The one who forgives, sweet, when I hate,
The one who takes a walk when I am indoors,
The one who will remain standing when I die.
(Translated by Robert Bly)
Nature has given me two irreconcilable virtues: supreme productivity and the yearning for supreme perfection . . . Thus my martyrdom--for Beauty--and my melancholy.
What a struggle within me between the complete and the perfect!
What a great thing it is: to be absolute master of perfection and scorn it like this!
I have Poetry hidden in my house, for her pleasure and mine. And the two of us behave like lovers.
I would give the better half of my work not to have written the other.
My best work is my constant repentance for my work. I am eternal. I have no possible solution.
I am so abstracted in the eternal that spiders have woven cobwebs between my feet.
I want to be, at the same time, the arrow and the spot where it penetrates, or gets lost.
I like not the event but its representation. For in the event I am only a participant or a spectator, and in the representation of it I am a creator, a poet.
They ask me, "Why don't you do this thing or that?"
I answer, "Because what I live on is precisely not doing them. I live negating their affirmation or affirming their negation."
They say I am monotonous. True. All I sing is the universe.
My only two weapons: time and silence.
My life never has a beautiful present. The best of it lies in memory and in hope.
My life is constant regret for not having done things I refused to do when I could have.
In order to disorder my inner life, I have to tidy up my outer one.
I don't smoke, don't drink wine, hate coffee and bullfighting, religion and militarism, the accordion and the death penalty. I live only for, and by, Beauty...
My work is--they say--unreal. Unreal, yes. But quiet and eternal amid the madness of life, like the shadow of a castle in the water that tries to carry it away.
Some of my affectionate envious friends say, "You write
"Maybe," I answer. "But as long as the best of your little is worse than the worst of my much, I will keep on doing so."
I believe in the "great poet," who isn't the one who
reaches the widest public but the one who creates the
Even greater would be the poet who could build the total, immense minority.
That is my own illusion.
"Glory" (what a word!) consists in going from the me that others don't know to the other me that I don't know.
It is frightful to have a double in life. In poetry, doubly frightful.
But it calms us when a third person takes our double to be a single.
The Universal Andalusian.
Tired of his Name.
In the End
Hidden creator of an unapplauded star.