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August 24, 2011
What expression, common in Spanish, can be found in the English word socks?
I was going to begin with a long disclaimer, a list of my disqualifications to write on this subject, an admission of flaws I see in my own arguments, and an acknowledgement that much of what I want to say is not unique to Spanish. I decided instead that a tease, the somewhat absurd riddle above posed by Señorita Unamuno, daughter of the philosopher Miguel de Unamuno, my first Spanish teacher (Connecticut College, 1957), would be more appropriate. My pronouncements here are to be taken lightly; they are altogether subjective and without scholarly backing, fifty years’ worth of drifting thoughts, impressions, and ruminations provoked most recently by failed attempts on my part to encourage students I tutor to think in Spanish, or at least to contemplate what I call Spanish mind.
Go to, let us go down, and there confound their language, that they may not understand one another’s speech. (Genesis)
Se me cayó (he fell from me), was what she said when I got up there, nothing to quiet my racing heart. A thud overhead – I must have been cooking dinner. Infant David’s blood and bones on the tile, limbs broken, skull crushed. She denied it all. Conchy (short for Concepción) was young, pretty, passionate, ignorant and superstitious, pregnant, a prophetic dreamer, seamstress, and naive painter – also my live-in baby-sitter from El Salvador. No, no. Don’t give me that. You dropped him! I don’t know what I said. We were both agitated, but David was fine. The wind knocked out of him for a minute maybe but, made of rubber, he bounced. And Conchy was right, of course. He got away from me would be an acceptable translation. Babies are slippery, as anyone who has changed a diaper knows, and our table was make-shift, the not quite wide enough top of a built-in chest of drawers. Still, to the end of my days, she will have dropped him. Something (Anglo-Saxon? English? American?) makes me mistrustful of a language in which one cannot take full responsibility for dropping the baby or the ball.Dejar caer (to let fall) comes close but is not, to my mind, the same thing. Here was the Tower of Babel; it was 1971.
As an English teacher, I am quick to advise Use the active voice – Rule 14 in The Elements of Style, by Strunk and White. Choose I took a trip to Boston, rather than the less vivid, awkward and wordy, a trip to Boston was taken by me. Spanish, however, encourages passive constructions like se me cayó, se me olvidó (it was forgotten by me). Sex, eggs, and travel may enchant or merely please me, but I cannot outright like them. English is all self-assertion, all I, I, I. I like, I want, I miss, I hurt. In Spanish, I, so often, like the other personal pronouns, buried in a verb, is diminished. In saying Me gusta, me hace falta, me da pena, I am less an actor than a victim of circumstance.
In Thailand, touching someone on the head, showing the bottom of one’s feet, and raising one’s voice are offenses a tourist must be careful to avoid. Though tempted to disobey, just to see what would happen when one of our guides knelt at my feet, I found these injunctions reasonable. When I first arrived in El Salvador, however, I was surprised at linguistic warnings. “If you see a Salvadoran eating,” my father said, “be sure to say buen provecho” (may it do you good). This made me nervous. Why should I intrude upon a stranger’s lunch? On the other hand, failure to speak up could brand me an ill-wisher or worse, a food poisoner. “Never say quiero (I want), always usequisiera” (I would like). Be gracious, undemanding. Assume a virtue, though you have it not.
Does the language we think in affect the way we think? Nature or nurture, chicken or egg? Questions endlessly puzzling, very likely unanswerable, but amusing to think about. Take the subjunctive, almost lost to, often hidden in English, but in Spanish pervasive. Do you have an opinion, are you going on a journey, meeting a train? Put up a red flag. To inhabit Spanish mind is to be drenched in doubt, to think at every turn of what we cannot count on, what we cannot know. English mind, on the other hand, proceeds with confidence and far less deference to others. Compare: espero que Robertovaya, quieren que salgamos, saldré antes de que vuelvan with their English equivalents:I hope Robert goes, they want us to go out, I will leave before you arrive. Spanish beats a retreat from the present and the future to project instead an infinitude possibly retrograde to our desires; anticipate opposition, Spanish seems to say. Robert may not go to the party, we may never leave, you may never arrive. I can be certain that I am happy about the idea, but not that Maricela and Juan will marry. His parents can give him advice, but Diego may not take it. Even when the first clause in a sentence begins with I doubt or it is not certain, the second clause must be in the subjunctive creating double doubt; in Spanish, doubt feeds upon itself and multiplies. What good is probability if it must end in doubt? To speak Spanish is to cast into the void our emotions, wishes, hopes, expectations, exhortations, commands, and demands. The subjunctive, after all, is not a tense, but a mood, an attitude, time out of mind, like Keats’s Grecian urn: thou silent form dost tease us out of thought as doth Eternity.
The present subjunctive in Spanish is used in dependent noun clauses that mark events or states that the speaker considers not part of reality or of his/her experience. This, a quotation from The Ultimate Spanish Review and Practice (Gordon and Stillman, McGraw Hill), is the heart of the matter, the point at which grammar recedes and philosophy takes over. Spanish is in league with Plato, not Aristotle, with Berkeley, not Descartes. A shaving cut, that quick spurt of blood, can bring relief, but in Spanish it will be momentary. There in the next clause lurks the epistemological qualm. In Spanish, we will always be jousting with windmills like Don Quixote, lingering with Calderón de la Barca in a land of illusion where toda la vida es sueno, y los suenos suenos son (all of life is a dream, and dreams are only dreams), wending our way, across continents and centuries, to multiple levels of reality in the libraries and labyrinths of Borges, to the magical realism of Garcia Marquez’ Macondo, to the intense, haunted world of contemporary Spanish novelist Javier Marías. These writers, like Garcia Lorca, have el duende—imp, elf, fairy, goblin, ghost-- the mysterious, Dionysian, supremely Spanish dark bull of the soul.
Where is Sancho Panza when I need him? A sidekick, a bit of comic shtick. Serf, peasant, flunky. Although I concede that Sancho and the Don are in some sense two sides of the same person (of the national character? of Cervantes?), Sancho Panza reminds me of the porter in Macbeth who serves more to deepen the tragedy than to relieve it. Looking for a more substantial counterweight, I summon the prayer of St. Francis for its series of neat oppositions: where there is hatred, let me sow love, where there is doubt, faith, and so on. With expressions of faith, Spanish is loaded: adiós, Dios guarde, gracias a Dios, ojalá! Primero Dios is my favorite. Literally, God first, God before all. But here I come full circle, for this is nothing more than fatalism, reliance on what I cannot see or know, at least not while in residence on earth. Faith, it turns out, is but a dream of heaven.
Does uncertainty breed humility? I think it may. To me, the simplest words of welcome in Spanish (pase adelante, come in) sound haughty and condescending—a great favor is being conferred. To be invited to use the intimate pronoun tú has something of the same flavor. Aurora Reyes (descended from kings?) from Nicaragua has been my housekeeper for twenty years or more, but we continue to use the more formal ustedwith which we began our acquaintance. We tread carefully lest one of us demean the other or presume too much. When I need to pass Aurora on stairs, I may not charge ahead, stepping on the vacuum cord, nearly shoving her out of the way with a perfunctory sorry, excuse me, or nothing; I must remember to say con permiso (with permission). Must I bow and scrape? In Spanish, I must. Perhaps this is why they are still lisping in Madrid, bowing and scraping to King Ferdinand I (1751-1825) of Castile. Salvadoran school boys study castellano, not español, but Italian is not called Tuscan. Americans do not pahk our cahs at Hahvad Yahd because JFK was president. Why do Conchy and Aurora work for me and not the other way around? When does self-effacement become self-abasement? I extend my sympathy to the people of Catalán battling to preserve their native tongue.
At the various embassy parties I attended while living in El Salvador in 1963, Latin American diplomats and military men with polished hair and shoes clicked their heels and kissed my hand, their strings of perfumed names, announcing paternal and maternal heritage, trailing behind them. Carlos María Bustamante de Los Angeles Herrera, a susórdenes! For a thrilling moment, they were mine to command but, too young and inexperienced to tease or test them, I asked for no more than caviar and champagne.Passivity, ultra- sensitivity, exquisite politeness, consciousness of one’s position, inflated pride. Taken together, these “Spanish” qualities speak to me of politics, of hierarchy and authority, of a top-down society. To get rid of thee and thou implies equality among us, to emphasize I is to take control, to accept responsibility, to put oneself forward without fear of offense. English is sturdier than Spanish, rough and tumble, devil-may-care. But for democracy and freedom we suffer consequent losses. Intimacy in English is reserved for poetry and prayer; in almost eliminating the subjunctive, we give up niceness of thought, subtlety, precision, and diplomacy. We risk arrogance, foolhardiness. We neglect decorum, ride roughshod over beauty. On a visit to Madrid, I found the soft sound of the ceceo (lisp) more than attractive; the refrain, a las cinco de la tarde (at five in the afternoon), in Lorca’s famous poem about the death of a bull fighter, La Cogida y La Muerte (literally, The Goring and Death), cannot be heard properly without it. Indeed, the ceceo became irresistible, and I fell into it easily—not at all the speech impediment I had imagined.
Any foreign language, but Spanish in particular, is for me a flirtation, an encounter with an extravagant and wheeling stranger such as Desdemona found in Othello. All thrills at the beginning, this other, this sped-up and heightened learning, these miracles of equation and communication, mastery and power. Alas, this phase is never lasting. It’s always harder than at first I thought it would be. The other is intractable and profound. Though many things fall into place, there is always more to learn. I hit a plateau, the slog of marriage. Because most of the time I no longer have to, I stop looking up words. Guilt sets in, my purpose wanes. I settle for knowing in part, for getting by. To progress, I require immersion, smothering, which will not come my way again. I continue to study along with my students; I have occasions almost daily to speak, read, and write. But in spite of this, Spanish remains peripheral to my world, an extra, a luxury, an amusing indulgence, trivial in the end. How I would love to testify de mi alma, de mi vida, de micorazón! But these are not my words. It is in English that I live and move and have my being
As I get older, I begin to accept that imperfection is the way of things, though English mind does not admit this readily. English has no match for the imperfect tense in Spanish, only approximations in such phrases as while I was doing my homework, weused to go to the beach every summer, we always spent Thanksgiving at Grandma’s.How odd this seems! As John Lennon said, Life is what happens to you while you’re making other plans. The imperfect tense is designed to take into account the way two events in the past collided, a kind of continuous overlap in which one action is forever suspended as another becomes complete. This seems to me a mirror of life itself. So much in our experience is never finally over, as we sense a constant invasion of the present by the past, in waves, in images, in snatches of poetry and song.
My live-in helper Conchy did not stay with us long; she hastened like one possessed to marry, to produce two daughters, Wendy and Nancy, to learn enough English to become a school receptionist, to move with her family to San Bernardino. Yet she remained with us as we remembered her anxiety over the fact that David had not been baptized, the pictures of the Virgin she pasted to the wall next to his crib, the halo of bottles she placed around his head so she could sleep late in the morning, the two pairs of scissors in the sign of the Cross on the floor to confound the Evil Eye. It would not surprise me to learn that she baptized him herself, or took him off to la iglesia Santa Inez when I wasn’t looking. We slept and dreamed on her embroidered pillow cases, laughed, though appalled, at a weaning method she devised: a little Tabasco on a bottle’s nipple. We danced at her wedding and felt the potent mix of spiritual, material, and erotic impulses at her first daughter’s quinceañera. She wrote her name on the insides of drawers and in other odd places; my granddaughter Farah now sits on the wooden chairs she painted with nursery rhyme themes for Farah’s child-father, Davicito. And Conchy thought of us. Shortly after Ernst died, having remained out of sight for years, she called, because the death of someone in our family had come to her in a dream.
Alive we are imperfect, incomplete; death itself is not an ending for those who live on. In 1992, as a kind of research for something I was writing, I tagged along on a trip to El Salvador with members of All Saints Episcopal Church in Pasadena which, at that time, sponsored a sanctuary house for Salvadoran refugees. We toured the country in a darkened jeep, visiting settlements of people displaced by the civil war which was still going on. I think we dispensed some dollars and supplies, but the main idea of the visit was to show solidarity, to walk side by side, sleeping in hammocks, bathing in rivers, digging latrines, if only for a few days, to listen and take part in discussions. A woman standing in a cornfield is my most vivid memory of that trip. Me conformaba, she said. I got used to it, I adjusted, I conformed myself. To the killing of her husband and two sons, to the annihilation of friends, neighbors, home, and village. Over and done with in English, but in the Spanish verb, reflexive and imperfect, her struggle and grief continued.
What is the answer to the riddle of language which unites and divides us? Angle of vision, window to an inner world? Most of us have no choice but to live in the language we were born to. Spanish, dream infused and imperfect though it may be, is to its native speakers as mundane and familiar as a gum wrapper or a pair of socks. Eso sí que es!