Ernesto Sabato, R.I.P.

30 April 2011

Saturday


Ernesto Roque Sabato, 24 June1911 to 30 April 2011

“Lo admirable es que el hombre siga luchando y creando belleza en medio de un mundo bárbaro y hostil.”

Ernesto Sabato, 24 June1911 to 30 April 2011


Living just short of a century, having been born in 1911, Argentine writer Ernesto Roque Sabato has died at the age of ninety-nine years. Here is the BBC story on his passing: Argentine writer Ernesto Sabato dies, age 99. Here is the story from the Buenos Aires Herald: Sabato: a living legend dies, at the age of 99.

While not well known in the Anglophone world, Sabato’s novel The Tunnel (El Tunel, 1948) has been called an “existentialist classic” and was praised by Camus.

Like many saddled with the “E-word,” and despite the persistent claims of Anglo-American philosophy that existentialism is/was amoral, Sabato was deeply engaged with the life of his times and of his nation, and this was a moral engagement. He was appointed to lead the commission (CONADEP) charged with investigating disappearances and other crimes of the “Dirty War” during the period of Argentina’s military dictatorship.

Sabato’s fame rests primarily upon three novels, but he also wrote essays of a Borgesian flavor, replete with recondite philosophical references. His longish essay, Uno y El Universo, is available online. In fact, Borges and Sabato were brought together by the journalist Orlando Barone in 1974 for an extensive exchange which was published in Conversations à Buenos Aires.

Like many South American writers — and I am not only thinking here of Borges and his Cantorian references, but also Comte de Lautréamont, who invokes mathematics throughout Les Chants de Maldoror — mathematics plays a symbolic role in Sabato’s thought, as though the roughness of the wilderness and the frontier that Sarmiento saw as a challenge and an affront to civilized life invites one to contemplate its antithesis in the refined precision of mathematical concepts. Sabato wrote:

“Existe una opinión generalizada según la cual la matemática es la ciencia más difícil cuando en realidad es la más simple de todas. La causa de esta paradoja reside en el hecho de que, precisamente por su simplicidad, los razonamientos matemáticos equivocados quedan a la vista. En una compleja cuestión de política o arte, hay tantos factores en juego y tantos desconocidos e inaparentes, que es muy difícil distinguir lo verdadero de lo falso. El resultado es que cualquier tonto se cree en condiciones de discutir sobre política y arte — y en verdad lo hace — mientras que mira la matemática desde una respetuosa distancia.”

“There is a widely held view that mathematics is the most difficult science when it is actually the simplest of all. The reason for this paradox lies in the fact that, precisely because of its simplicity, false mathematical arguments are immediately seen as such. In complex questions of politics or art there are many factors involved, and because of the many unknowns and subtle factors, it is very difficult to distinguish the true from the false. The result is that any fool is thought to be able to discuss politics and art — and indeed we do — while looking at mathematics from a respectful distance. ”

Here mathematics goes proxy for the absolute — it is, in fact, a concrete, accessible, and vividly present absolute — and thence symbolizes all purely theoretical endeavors. In one of his last works, Antes del Fin, Sabato wrote of the absolute:

“La dura realidad es una desoladora confusión de hermosos ideales y torpes realizaciones, pero siempre habrá algunos empecinados, héroes, santos y artistas, que en sus vidas y en sus obras alcanzan pedazos del Absoluto, que nos ayudan a soportar las repugnantes relatividades.”

“Harsh reality is a desolate confusion of beautiful ideals and clumsy achievements, but there will always be some diehards, heroes, saints and artists who in their lives and works attain the absolute, which helps us to support the repugnant relativities.”

This is a deeply charitable way to characterize the human achievement so far — beautiful ideals and clumsy achievements — and a writer (equally and no less the thinker) must first of all be charitable to the world in order to learn from it and to reflect the world back upon itself, which is the task of the literary art.

What is charity? In the tradition of Christian civilization, charity is love. To be charitable to the human condition is to love the human condition for what it is. Love of the world is the condition of all elevated thought, often wrongly understood as thought that has rejected or surmounted the world. Thus the absolute seized by a few diehards, heroes, saints, and artists is not attained in spite of the harsh realities of the world, which we accept in the spirit of charity, but because of them.

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