Juan Larrea, acrused poet

Blanca Riestra. Professor. IE School of Arts & Humanities

5 May 2009

Deprived of himself, Juan Larrea achieved an impersonal and purified poetic style that created a school among the great surrealist poets.

It was a series of existential vicissitudes Larrea would have said when he was a somewhat emphatic and old-fashioned young poet who opposed rhetoric while writing prose and teleologizing culture. They made me spend no fewer than four years in the arms of that old poet. In other words, life led me to write my doctoral thesis on Juan Larrea and on that mysterious book that bears the title of Version Celeste and contains a set of very varied texts.

Thanks to Juan Manuel Diez de Guereñu, I had access to fascinating material that is still in the Diego archive and that Elena Diego kindly placed at my disposal while I was living in France.

What does genetic criticism consist of? The neophytes among you will be wondering: well, it consists of entering the sacred room of the poet, in this case, sacred on two counts since, like Prometheus, he is the fire thief and, like the fallen angel, he says non serviam... (and i quote Huidobro) and spying on the creative work one imagines to be impregnable. But perhaps it is not.

In general, I have always been interested in Larrea because he represents a type of author figure that compromises with nothing, unyielding, angry. León Felipe said of him that he was like a prophet crying out in the desert, throwing the merchants out of the temple, refusing to condescend. That young bourgeois, who, leaving behind his job as an archivist, which he had achieved through sitting public examinations, went to Paris in search of a chimera, of enlightenment in the bottom of glasses of absinthe on the terraces of La Coupole or La Closerie des Lilas in an era when the surrealist revolution was beginning, the revolution that continues to change our world one century later.

In Paris, Larrea met César Vallejo and saw him die, calling him the "Indo-Hispanic martyr". Vallejo had predicted his own death with the words "I will die in Paris, on a rainy day, on some day I can already remember". His friends at the time were Juan Gris, Jacques Lipzitch and Tristan Tzara. Larrea clearly read Freud and was familiar with automatic writing. He drank from the doctrines of Breton’s poetic irrationalism, but only to a certain extent. With his proverbial independence as his motto, he started to build his own faith in a poetic law that would govern the world and history.

Above all, he started to divest himself of his belongings, taking a road that would lead him to a form of poetry that was increasingly refined and impersonal until he abandoned poetry all together. Only a man like Larrea is capable of spending his father´s entire inheritance on an incredible collection of pre-Columbine antiques and then donating it to the government of the republic, asking for nothing in exchange. In Madrid´s Museum of America, which is where his donations ended up, there is no trace whatsoever of his generosity. Not even a simple plaque of recognition.

And yet, one can still imagine the elation of selling up everything one has and moving on, with little baggage, with very little baggage, like Peer Gint. In one of his first ultraísta poems, Larrea said... "I still have to flee from myself"...
And indeed, the story of the evolution of poetry in Version Celeste is a story of flight. Deep down, there is a final coherence in that leap in the dark since, what is it if not ultraísmo taken to its final consequences, not as a bar in a pub or any kind of projectile, but rather as a lifelong commitment?

The young man from the Basque Country, a childhood friend of Diego, who delighted with the suggestions of fashion magazines, under the shadow of the sadly forgotten Cansinos Assens, Ultra, Cervantes, and Grecia, left everything behind in his search for something that was already in existence, the voice that can be heard above all else: Poetry... with a capital P, Poetic reason.

And what better way to escape from his own cultural burdens, from his linguistic home ground, from clichés, from refrains, from musical encumbrances and from his own compositional inertia than abandoning his own language and writing in a foreign language? And, although his decision came as no surprise at a time when the avant garde advocated complete indifference to the language in which a text was written, for him, for Larrea, it was a move that was to cost him dearly and condemn him for all time as a poet.

He was thus to become a ghostly presence forever, a poet in no man´s land: the French looked on him as a Spanish author and the Spanish as a French author. We must remember Dámaso Alonso’s mistrust of the absent Larrea, who was said to be a heteronym of Gerardo Diego, a kind of another self, more modern and impetuous, who was always quoted with one single line, said as a joke, "a café is never far away…"

However, Diego’s triumph was only half in his work to defend, translate and publish Larrea’s poems, not to say completely, and, although Larrea’s name has been and continues to be an open secret, and, as Díaz de Guereñu says, those who study him can be counted with the fingers on one hand, it would appear to be almost proved today that the surrealist books by Lorca, Alberti and perhaps even those by Aleixandre are the illegitimate children of Version Celeste. From very far away and immersed in his own personal battle of unhealing, Larrea would therefore be the secret father of Spanish surrealism.


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