Scholia to an Implicit Text: Bilingual Selected Edition
by nicolás gómez-dávila
villegas editores, 392 pages, $24
Nicolás Gómez-Dávila’s name is not one to conjure with on these shores or, probably, any others. His work, almost exclusively collections of short—indeed one- or two-sentence—compositions, was long available only in limited editions from small presses in his native Colombia, and even then only because his family and friends urged him to publish. Translations, especially into German, have made him a cult figure in Europe, but in the United States, where he has never appeared in any publisher’s catalogue, his influence has been limited to the odd journal article, posts on a handful of dedicated blogs, and a pair of entries at RapGenius.com.
This is a pity. His minute reflections on aesthetics, politics, and theology are rewarding out of all proportion to their length. Villegas Editores, a small Colombian house, has now given us the first official translation of Gómez-Dávila into English: Scholia to an Implicit Text: Bilingual Selected Edition. The translator, Roberto Pinzón, has a somewhat shaky grasp of English grammar, and an even looser understanding of idiom, but that should not diminish the pleasure of this overdue arrival.
Aphorism is the most convenient English noun to describe Gómez-Dávila’s laconic prose specimens. But he rejected this label, preferring to call them “scholia,” short glosses or commentaries like the ones found in Greek and Latin manuscripts. Gómez-Dávila saw his own scholia, which he invited readers to consider as his responses to specific though unnamed texts, as fragments from which historians of the future might reconstruct bits of a century that he thought would “bequeath nothing but the traces of its hustle and bustle at the service of our filthiest desires.”
Gómez-Dávila was born in Cajicá, a town north of Bogotá, in 1913, but his childhood was spent mostly in Europe, where his father, a well-to-do carpet manufacturer, brought the family when Nicolás was six years old. He was educated first in Paris, at a Benedictine boarding school, and then, after taking ill with pneumonia, by private tutors. A good student of languages, he came to read Greek, Latin, English, German, French, Italian, Portuguese, and, of course, Spanish; in old age he is said to have been plugging away at Danish—under the influence of Kierkegaard—and Russian.
It was not until age twenty-three that he returned to Colombia, where he soon married. Gómez-Dávila, whom his friends called “Don Colacho,” appears to have taken little interest in his family’s manufacturing business, preferring the life of a clubman and amateur scholar to that of a tycoon. Few photographs of him are extant, but the ones that are show a comfortable-looking old gentleman with a Clement Attlee mustache and thick black glasses.
He is said to have been a very keen player of polo. Once, when performing the sublime—and now probably illegal—stunt of lighting a cigar while hoisting a mallet, he fell from his pony and broke a hip. His admirers cannot wholly regret this fall, which forced him to spend less of his time in chukka and more of it living what he called “a simple, quiet, discreet life among intelligent books, loving a few beings” at his home in Bogotá. The rest of his days were given over to reading, slowly and at all hours, and to composing the scholia, which were published in five volumes between 1954 and 1992.
The present volume, which gathers together, with a facing-page translation, the best of the scholia from each volume, is full of amusing things. It is one of the only books I have read that has made me laugh on almost every page. Those new to his work will be struck first by Gómez-Dávila’s numerous enmities, which included economists (“unerringly wrong”), journalists (“the courtiers of the populace”), technology (“God invented tools; the devil, machines”), psychology (“the study of bourgeois behaviour”), having to sit still at Mass between the Gospel and the Creed (“sermons undermine faith”), egalitarianism (“If men were born equal, they would invent inequality to kill tedium”), and anything preceded by the word “social” (“the adjectival prefix of every swindle”).
His enthusiasms were fewer. He was a pure aesthete who insisted that “refusing to admire is the token of the beast.” He hated contemporary architecture, which he called the “most serious charge against the modern world,” and the “infinite nonsense” of advertising, almost as much as he loved painting, classics, and the unclothed female figure.
An unabashed masculinity and a corresponding delight in the sensual recur throughout the scholia: “A nude body solves every problem of the universe”; “love is, in essence, the attachment of the spirit to another nude body.” Cardinal Newman might have blushed at these sentiments, which are decidedly not Anglo-Saxon in flavor. But they are expressions of a sensibility that was in line with the Church’s teachings about sexuality while being entirely at home with the voluptuousness of, say, Goya’s Nude Maja. Besides, he loathed smut and dismissed the large class of persons whose only exposure to eighteenth-century literature was the Marquis de Sade as “visitors of a palace who admire nothing but its latrines.”
His cultural criticism is full of sentiments to which every bosom returns an echo: “Journalism was the cradle of literary criticism. The university is its grave.” “Vulgarity consists not in what vulgar people do but in what pleases them.” “Reading newspapers debases him whom it does not stultify.” “The modern world shall not be punished. It is the punishment.”
Like those of most aesthetes, Gómez-Dávila’s tastes informed his politics, which were thoroughly antidemocratic: “No folk tale has ever begun thus: ‘Once upon a time there was a president.’” Though he did employ the word occasionally, “conservative” is probably not an adjective that should be used by critics in connection with Gómez-Dávila’s views, which were avowedly reactionary. If he was a conservative, then it is fair to say that his was not the conservatism of Reagan and Thatcher, or even of John Adams and Pitt the Younger. Like Ruskin, he was a violent Tory of the old school who believed that “spiritual destitution pays for industrial prosperity,” and he had little interest in defending the market economy, with its “overflowing of greed” and encouragement of vulgar taste. “The Gospels and the Communist Manifesto pale,” he grumbled. “The future of the world is in the hands of Coca-Cola and pornography.”
Unlike Emil Cioran, Ernst Jünger, and other obscure reactionary figures with whom he has been compared, Gómez-Dávila never espoused racialist or anti-Semitic views, though occasional cryptic lines do suggest a somewhat unhealthy interest in population control. A monarchist and an aristocrat with no interest in representative government, he had little sympathy toward any actual hereditary dynasty, long deposed or otherwise. “Today there is no-one to fight for. Only against.” For him reaction was not a collection of principles or a set of policy prescriptions, much less a developed political philosophy. It was a balm, “insight” offered as “the prize of the defeated,” and the reactionary himself was merely “a castaway who sinks with dignity.”
John Charmley, one of the most amusing if not the most sympathetic of Winston Churchill’s many biographers, once took the great man to task for believing that “all problems are sent into this world with a twin called solution, and that the art of politics is to find that twin.” Whether Charmley’s Churchill: End of Glory was among the 30,000 volumes in Gómez-Dávila library is anyone’s guess, but an abhorrence of solutions is probably as good a summary as any of his politics.
Gómez-Dávila traced all political errors back to theological misapprehensions. Liberalism was for him, as it was for Newman, Nietzsche, and Maurice Cowling, ultimately a heresy, a kind of latter-day Arianism for our age’s own barbarians. It denies Christ’s divinity and transplants it to man, imbuing its adherents with a spirit of almost pathetic optimism. The response to this heresy for Gómez-Dávila was cosmic quietism, a refusal to acknowledge any teleology for humanity beyond that purchased for us at Calvary. “Man,” he wrote, “is a riddle without a human solution.” He doubted very much whether there was anything to gain by formulating, much less carrying out, solutions. But he saw a world “drowning” in them.
Though traditional Catholics will doubtless enjoy his digs at progressive clergymen and agree with his aesthetic objections to the Mass of Pope Paul VI, Gómez-Dávila’s orthodoxy, especially by the standards of the preconciliar Church, is very much an open question. He was almost certainly a fideist of the Kierkegaardian variety, starkly declaring that “if God were a conclusion of reasoning, I would not feel it necessary to worship Him.” He insisted that “Scholasticism sinned by trying to turn Christians into know-alls” and that it encouraged the higher criticism (“Christ did not leave documents but disciples”). There are also hints in his work, if not of outright universalism, then certainly of hope for the salvation of all, also expressed by Karl Rahner, Hans Urs von Balthasar, and the founder of this magazine: “I rather believe in God’s smile than in his wrath.”
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. The fact that his tone is caustic and his political views incompatible with even a limited faith in liberal democracy should caution readers against complacence and placing ultimate trust in anything but the articles of the Creed. “I do not belong to a perishing world,” he wrote. “I prolong and transmit a deathless truth.” His scholia remind us that the city upon a hill is not ours to build. They also force us to admit that, while as Christians we may hope to be the “light of the world,” we are not the source of the light.
Matthew Walther, formerly assistant editor of the American Spectator, has written for the Spectator of London, the American Conservative, the Weekly Standard, and other publications.