Carlos Fuentes, author of two of my favorite novels, The Eagle’s Throne andThe Crystal Frontier, died yesterday. He also wrote a book called Gringo viejo (Old Gringo), which imagines the undocumented end of Ambrose Bierce’s life during the Mexican Revolution. Bierce’s satirical lexicon, The Devil’s Dictionary, was known in its first edition of 1906 as The Cynic’s Word Book. Bierce’s pursuit of truth and political engagement in the Mexican Revolution was decidedly uncynical, however, and his disappearance approaches Quixote-esque proportions of melancholic folly. Fuentes considered Don Quixote the best novel ever written.
“[T]ime will not only tell: Time will sell. One might think that Cervantes was in tune with his times whereas Stendhal consciously wrote for "the happy few" and sold poorly in his own life…Some writers achieve great popularity and then disappear forever. The bestseller lists of the past fifty years are, with a few lively exceptions, a somber graveyard of dead books. Yet permanence is not a willful proposition. No one can write a book aspiring to immortality, for it would then court both ridicule and certain mortality. Plato puts immortality in perspective when he states that eternity, when it moves, becomes time, eternity being a kind of frozen time. And William Blake certainly brings things down to earth: Eternity is in love with the works of time.”
—Carlos Fuentes, “In Praise of the Novel,” 2005.
“DEBT, n. An ingenious substitute for the chain and whip of the slave-driver.
As, pent in an aquarium, the troutlet
Swims round and round his tank to find and outlet,
Pressing his nose against the glass that holds him,
Nor ever sees the prison that enfolds him;
So the poor debtor, seeing naught around him,
Yet feels the narrow limits that impound him,
Grieves at his debt and studies to evade it,
And finds at last he might as well have paid it.”
—Ambrose Bierce, The Devil’s Dictionary, 1911.
“ ‘Oh!’ responded Sancho, weeping. ‘Don’t die Señor; your grace should take my advice and live for many years, because the greatest madness a man can commit in this life is to let himself die, just like that, without anybody killing him or any other hands ending his life except those of melancholy. Look, don’t be lazy, but get up from that bed and let’s go to the countryside dressed as shepherds, just like we arranged…If you’re dying over sorrow of being defeated, blame me for that, and say you were toppled because I didn’t tighten Rocinante’s cinches…”
— Miguel de Cervantes, Don Quixote Part II, 1615.
Let Me Recite What History Teaches (LMRWHT) is a weekly column that flashes the gaslight, candlelight, torch, or starlight of the past on something that is happening now. The citational constellations work to recover what might be best about the “wide-eyed presentation of mere facts.” They are offered with astonishment and largely without comment. The title is taken from the last line of Stein’s poem “If I Told Him (A Completed Portrait of Picasso)."