'Between appearance and character'

On Vallejo's 'Selected Writings'

Photo of César Vallejo (right) by Juan Domingo Córdoba, 1929.

Selected Writings

Selected Writings

César Vallejo, ed. Joseph Mulligan

Wesleyan University Press 2015, 679 pages, $40.00, ISBN 978-0819574848

Peruvian poet César Vallejo (1892–1938) has long been recognized as a defining early twentieth-century experimentalist, but the full expanse of his writing — which extends well beyond poetry alone — has never been fully revealed to Anglophone readers until now. The diverse range of material in Selected Writings will surprise any reader familiar with Vallejo only in English translation. Editor Joseph Mulligan presents hearty selections from each of Vallejo’s collections of poetry along with excerpts from Vallejo’s fiction, plays, critical essays, and journalism. This is all in addition to an excerpt from Vallejo’s published undergraduate thesis Romanticism in Castilian Poetry (1915), as well as selections from his correspondence and private notebooks, all presented in chronological order.     

It is readily apparent that Mulligan’s contention is accurate: “Few times in the history of Western Literature has the representation of such a multifaceted figure been so one-dimensional.”[1] Clayton Eshleman’s near lifelong commitment to translating Vallejo’s poetry resulted in The Complete Poetry, and it was Eshleman who suggested the Selected Writings project to Mulligan (xv). Yet poetry was clearly only one of many avenues through which Vallejo’s critically engaged thinking successfully took shape. Mulligan’s selections are drawn primarily from the dozen-volume Obras Completas published by the Pontificia Universidad Católica del Perú. Putting aside the dearth of his non-poetry-related work’s availability to an Anglophone audience, the sheer mass of Vallejo’s output is rather astounding; it is simply an amazing amount of writing, considering Vallejo passed away at forty-six.

Vallejo’s lifelong political and social commitment to the poor and working class is ever apparent: “Everything comes down to this: what’s the biggest and most acute problem of our time? Indisputably, it’s the social problem, the worker. Why don’t intellectuals resolve it?” (477). Yet he refuses the suggestion that his creative work might be complicit with any expressed doctrine: “As a human being, I can sympathize and work for the revolution, but as an artist it’s not in my hands or anyone else’s to control the political outcomes that may be implicit in my poems” (181–82).

The relationship between Marxist thought and Vallejo’s creative and critical work is ever-evolving. At times his stated positions even appear contradictory. He does not hold back scorn for poets whose work he judges overtly on the side of political appearance rather than grounded in artistic merit: “Mayakovsky was a mere intellectual, a simple wordsmith, a hollow rhetorician” (209). And although, as noted above, he argues “political outcomes” should in no way be imposed upon creative work, he has no patience for those who ignore the matter of the worker’s struggle: “He who today walks by the tragedy of the worker unaffected is not a poet. Paul Valéry, Maeterlinck, they are not” (474). As Vallejo evolves as both artist and thinker, the dilemma of the artist’s position in relation to that of the worker repeatedly manifests as a central concern.

Vallejo’s interior struggle to balance the competing and antithetical impulses he feels towards art and revolution lead him closer to merging them together. He argues a revolutionary writer’s work is meant to “shatter the secular barrier between intelligence and the people, between spirit and matter.” (497) But to do so in such a manner clearly understanding that it is “not for the spirit to go to matter, as any writer of the ruling class would say, but for matter to draw near the spirit of intelligence, horizontally not vertically, man to man.” (497) Vallejo is adamant that true revolutionary writing must witness the arbitrariness of any strict divisions between class and social structures.

The revolutionary writer erroneously thinks that there’s a need for proletarian art, considering that the worker is a pure worker, which is untrue, because the worker also has something of a bourgeois in him. The worker breathes bourgeois air and is more imbued with bourgeois spirit than we would suspect. This is very important in order to conceive of proletarian art or art of the masses. (481)

As an artist Vallejo is wary of overly compulsive impulses within Marxist thought which tend toward uncritical acceptance among leaders and followers alike. He describes how for “hardline Marxists, fanatical Marxists, grammatical artists, who pursue the realization of Marxism to the letter” the result is that “life ends up being at the service of doctrine, instead of the latter at the service of the former” (367). Vallejo draws historical parallels, pointing out that the problems inherent in Marxist ideology are nothing new: “These are the doctors of the school, the scribes of Marxism, the ones who oversee and, with the jealousy of amanuenses, guard the form and letter of the new spirit, just like all the scribes of all the gospels throughout the course of history” (367).

Vallejo’s assessments are complex. His engagement comes as both a critical and creative thinker. The limits of perceiving “that Marx is the only philosopher of the past, present, and future” are immediately transparent to him since “according to these fanatics, Marx will be the last revolutionary of all time, and after him no man in the future will be able to create anything ever again. The revolutionary spirit ends with him” (367). This line of thought allows too little space for the unique merging that is the creative and revolutionary drive behind all Vallejo’s writings.

Vallejo’s artistic beliefs often arrive summed up with simple integrity, as in his declaration that true creators are characterized “by devoting themselves without anointing themselves and without besmirching anyone else” (166). Or this, on what it means to stay true to indigenous roots: “Autochthony does not consist in saying that one is autochthonous but precisely in being so, even when not saying so” (166). Vallejo’s frustration over the inability of European readers to grasp his strong native ties boils over at times: “Lorca is Andalusian. Why don’t I have the right to be Peruvian? Why are they going to tell me that they don’t understand me in Spain?” (480). Resisting the compulsion to adopt a more continental outlook, he is ever defending the vitality and richness of experience granted him by his American nativist perspective.

Vallejo’s radicalism is born of his belief in a “human and universal aesthetic” which, as he describes it, deliberately mixes the modernist mindset with the collective roots from which one identifies a homeland. This aesthetic insists upon “straying from the path and obtaining that higher air of the very spiritual disciplines of the race and tradition. This is what Stravinsky has done, based on the Russian steppe, and the Frenchman, Erik Satie, based on the Druid stones” (144). Vallejo is grounded by his hold upon the roots of nativist expression, bringing traditional features to bear upon his distinctly Modernist experiment. His intention to mix tradition with experimentation is reflected in Mulligan’s relating the backstory of how “The book was titled Bronze Skulls and, at the last minute, Vallejo slipped a correction sheet into the galley to change the title to Trilce, a word that he'd invented” (xxiv). The poems represent the beginning of Vallejo’s implementation of the often strange and unusual vocabulary found throughout his work.

Mulligan describes how the radical experimentation found in Vallejo’s second book of poems, Trilce, holds a uniquely central place within the Latin American experimental tradition, remarking that indeed “So great has this book’s impact been on twentieth-century Hispanic poetry that when we consider any other modern literary work of radical innovation, we’re forced to ask if it came before or after Vallejo’s great poetic adventure.” Ranking it “the indisputable catalyst of the Latin American experimental tradition” in spite of the fact that “Vicente Huidobro had already published El espejo de agua as early as 1916,” Mulligan bolsters his argument by citing Julio Ortega’s assertion, made in the introduction to a more recent edition of Trilce (Cátedra, 1991), that it is “the most radical book in the Castilian language.”

Although he relies heavily upon Eshleman’s extensive translation work for most of the poetry in this collection, Mulligan also presents his own rare translations into English in the selections from Trilce. He gives some reasoning for doing so in a footnote to the final stanza of section XVIII, particularly its last line. That stanza reads:

And only will I keep my hold,
with my right hand, that makes do for both,
upraised, in search of a tertiary arm
that must pupilate, between my where and when,
this stunted adulthood of man. (52)

Mulligan explains that “The line mayoria inválida de hombre encapsulates a major idea to which Vallejo returns time and again through Trilce and other works as well: the idea of reaching one's potential” (574). He notes that “Most English translations render this line as “invalid majority of man”; however, mayoriá is not only “majority” but the state of being a mayor (adult), that is, adulthood” (574–75). Eshleman’s translation of the same stanza does not offer the assertive immediacy which Mulligan seeks in his own: “And only I hang on, / with my right, serving for both hands, / raised, in search of a tertiary arm / to pupilize, between my where and my wen, / this invalid coming of age.”[2] Such cases as this wholeheartedly prove the quality and astuteness of Mulligan’s editorial acumen with this project, attesting to its assured long-lasting value.    

Given the generally hectic nature of Vallejo’s travels, two things missing from this otherwise stellar volume are a general chronology and a biographical index of key characters with whom Vallejo either corresponds directly or mentions in his writing. The volume is ordered in such chronological fashion that it invites the urge to follow along simultaneous biographical and historical threads, which at times proves a bit tricky. Supplementary materials would improve reader access to relevant factual data concerning what’s occurring at any given point both for Vallejo personally and within a larger context. These are, however, somewhat minor enhancements and certainly not relevant to every reader’s experience.

Vallejo’s writing, in the end, simply mesmerizes. He writes from a state of constant self-recognition and revelation: “When I read, it seems like I see myself in a mirror” (477). Propelling his work forward, exploring ramifications by sense as much as argument: “Upon a certain mysterious balance between what is visible and invisible in a portrait, between circumstance and permanence, or, what amounts to the same thing, between appearance and character is what the greatness of a creation depends” (212). Again and again, Vallejo’s focus hovers over his awareness within the immediate activity of writing, drawing attention to the vital importance of the ongoing present, as he puts it in one of the short, assertive near-manifesto declarative prose pieces found in “Against Professional Secrets”: “At the moment a tennis player masterfully tosses the ball, he’s possessed by animal innocence” (213). With Selected Writings Vallejo’s diverse, variable work is at long last given adequate representation in the Anglosphere, providing access to an abundant number of fresh insights into the scope of his oeuvre.

1. César Vallejo, Selected Writings, ed. Joseph Mulligan (Wesleyan, 2015), xvii.

2. César Vallejo, The Complete Poetry: A Bilingual Edition, ed. and trans. Clayton Eshleman (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2007), 201.