Thursday, November 20, 2014

`He Who Suggests More Than He Expresses'

“The true reader clings to the text he reads like a shipwrecked man to a floating plank.” 

From this, we remember this: “The drama’s done. Why then here does any one step forth? Because one did survive the wreck.” Ishmael, of course, but the author of the first aphorism is Nicolás Gómez Dávila – Don Colacho – and he too is a survivor, doubly so. He endured the wreckage of Western Culture and wrote amidst the rubble, and now, slowly, thanks to readers and writers working like medieval monks in splendid isolation, his work is rediscovered, translated and newly appreciated. The latest to celebrate the great Colombian miniaturist is Matthew Walther in First Things: 

“If Gómez-Dávila is ever declared a saint, admittedly a very remote possibility, he should be taken up as the patron of nihilists—which is to say, of most of us on our worst days. His work is a complement to, if not a substitute for, gin, tobacco, and constant prayer.”

This is intentionally provocative, laced with something to offend all sides, though I like his novel definition of nihilist. Even the best of us carry around a nihilist chromosome, just waiting to mutate into barbarism. Note Walther’s observation on Gómez-Dávila: “It is one of the only books I have read that has made me laugh on almost every page.” Helen Pinkerton wrote to me after my recent post devoted to Don Colacho: 

“Ever since you furnished a link to his work… I have been reading him. Not every day, but from time to time, when my mind needs refreshment, stimulation, reassurance.  He is, I believe, one of the great thinkers… of our time. When I read him steadily for a good portion of time, I begin to realize again that I am not wrong in being a fundamental conservative. Each aphorism, time after time, hits home with my own thinking, always, of course, phrased in the conceptual language of which he is master. He states the fundamental assumptions, principles, and purposes of conservative, Christian thought, so succinctly, exactly, and clearly that, as one reads, one just cannot dispute what he says. At least, few, if any thinkers I have read could refute his observations. And he constantly considers, defines and exposes the errors--practical and philosophical--of the thinkers who have dominated our intellectual life and culture throughout the 20th century.” 

Don Colacho reminds us of Pascal, and not merely in his aphoristic form of expression. In Pascal: The Life of Genius (Reynal & Hitchcock, 1936), Morris Bishop says of the austere philosopher/mathematician: “Truth was to him a physical force, demanding to do its work. He assumed without question that his discovery of truth required him to publish it.” One senses a similar moral urgency in Don Colacho. Bishop writes of the author of Les Pensées: 

“He jotted down his thoughts as they came to him, on odd bits of paper, backs of bills, now in illegible invalid’s scribble, now in a clear, confident hand. When too weak to write, he would dictate the scheme of an idea, or a few happy phrases, to his nephew Étienne or a servant. Still able to walk, he would return from a little round of nearby churches with the suggestion of a pensée scratched on his fingernails with a pin.” 

With Helen Pinkerton I frequently reread Don Colacho’s aphorisms for “refreshment, stimulation, reassurance,” and find endorsement of the practice among them: 

“Only he who suggests more than what he expresses can be reread.”

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