I learned - or sometimes only tried to - learn a lot of languages in the last 44 years. I don’t remember being taught my first one and I have vague memories of how the two second ones entered my life, my grandfather watching German tv programs and English songs being present on the radio. There were English classes in primary school and German, French, Greek and Latin in secondary school. Old and modern Irish and Welsh in University and Hungarian when I lived for a while on the border between Slovakia and Hungary.
Some of them I forgot, there are no traces of the Welsh and in Hungarian I only managed to figure out when one word ended and the next one started in those never-ending poetic lines I heard people say. It is handy to be able to read the Greek alfabet when I am there on holiday but we never learned to speak in the classic Greek or Latin, just read and, speaking for myself, getting lost and confused. I speak English well though, good enough to feel comfortable writing in English. My German is pretty good and I can make myself understandable in French. It goes without saying that I don’t master any language as well as Dutch, but I don’t use it a lot and prefer not to.
I’ve been wanting to learn Spanish for a long time and postponed it for almost two years. This week I finally started and although I’ve spend many weeks and months wandering around in the language, speaking it is something different altogether. You need time and attention to learn something new and I couldn’t find it before.
During the day, in class, I learn Castilian which is Spanish but only one of the four Spanish languages. I try to tell the time and to remember the year I was born in. I fail often. My memory plays tricks on me when at home I put verbs in my mouth but don’t know how to conjugate them. I still don’t manage the simple present tense in this new language but I do manage it in my being when I sit on my balcony in the darkness.
It is these quiet hours of the night that teach me most. About something that shimmers through all languages I ever learned. The hours when it is darkest outside and the birds are singing, birds that clearly don’t need daylight to sing but if they are robins, as I suspect, they appreciate the streetlights. They sing as if daylight is arriving soon and it will, in only a few hours, an instant in a lifetime, interchangeable with other offshoots of the night on other days, in other months.
During the night I leave my grammar books closed. I try to read El Principito and random Spanish articles of which I merely grasp the general meaning. I read Wallace Stevens in translation, two languages side by side, and I suspect it would be more efficient to stick to the grammar book if it would be only about being able to feel at home in the conversations of Spanish friends as soon as possible.
But I need to feel at home in my new life as well.
So I read this.
Prologues to what is possible
There was an ease of mind that was like being alone in a boat at sea,
A boat carried forward by waves resembling the bright back of rowers,
Gripping their oars, as if they were sure of the way to their destination,
Bending over and pulling themselves erect on the wooden handles,
Wet with water and sparkling in the one-ness of their motion.
The boat was built of stones that had lost their weight and being no longer heavy
Had left in them only a brilliance, of unaccustomed origin,
So that he that stood up in the boat leaning and looking before him
Did not pass like someone voyaging out of and beyond the familiar.
He belonged to the far-foreign departure of his vessel and was part of it,
Part of the speculum of fire on its prow, its symbol, whatever it was,
Part of the glass-like sides on which it glided over the salt-stained water.
As he travelled alone, like a man lured on by a syllable without any meaning,
A syllable of which he felt, with an appointed sureness,
That it contained the meaning into which he wanted to enter,
A meaning which, as he entered it, would shatter the boat and leave the oarsmen quiet
As at a point of central arrival, an instant moment, much or little,
Removed from any shore, from any man or woman, and needing none.
The metaphor stirred his fear. The object with which he was compared
Was beyond his recognising. By this he knew that likeness of him extended
Only a little way, and not beyond, unless between himself
And things beyond resemblance there was this and that intended to be recognized,
The this and that in the enclosures of hypotheses
On which men speculated in summer when they were half asleep.
What self, for example, did he contain that had not yet been loosed,
Snarling in him for discovery as his attentions spread,
As if all his hereditary lights were suddenly increased
By an access of color, a new and unobserved, slight dithering,
The smallest lamp, which added its puissant flick, to which he gave
A name and privilege over the ordinary of his commonplace -
A flick which added to what was real and its vocabulary,
The way some first thing coming into Northern trees
Adds to them the whole vocabulary of the South,
The way the earliest single light in the evening sky, in spring,
Creates a fresh universe out of nothingness by adding itself,
The way a look or a touch reveals its unexpected magnitudes.
Wallace Stevens (from: The Rock)
Prólogos a lo que es posible
Había una comodidad mental que era como encontrarse a solas en una barca en el mar,
una barca empujada por olas semejantes a brillantes espaldas de remeros,
apretando sus remos, como si conocieran bien el camino para llegar a su destino,
doblándose e irguiéndose del todo sobre las asas de madera,
regados de agua y relucientes en su aunado movimiento.
La barca estaba hecha de piedras que habían perdido su peso y, al no pesar ya nada,
solo habían dejado un brillo, de desacostumbrado origen,
así que quien estaba en pie en la barca, inclinado y mirando el frente,
no pasaba tal como alguien que parte y viaja más allá de lo familiar.
Pertenecía a la partida de su nave en el lejano extranjero y era parte de ella,
parte del speculum de fuego de su proa, su símbolo, fuera lo que fuese,
parta de los cristalinos laterales por los que resbalaba sobre el aqua salpicada de sal,
al viajar solo, cual hombre espoleado por el señuelo de una sílaba carente de significado,
sílaba que le parecía, con señalada seguridad,
que contenía el significado en el que él quería entrar,
un significado que, cuando entrase, arrasaría la barca y dejaría a los remeros callados,
como en un punto de llegada central, un momento de un instante, mucho o poco,
retirado de toda orilla, de todo hombre o mujer, y sin necesidad de ninguno.
Le inspriró miedo la metáfora. El objeto con el que él era comparado
estaba más allá del reconocimiento. Por eso supo que su parecido alcanzaba
solo hasta cierto punto, no más allá, a menos que entre él
y las cosas más allá de la semejanza estuvieran esto y aquello pensado para ser reconocidos,
el esto y el aquello en los recintos de las hipótesis
sobre las que los hombres especulaban en verano cuando estaban medio dormidos.
Qué yo, por ejemplo, contenía él que no hubiera sido aún soltado,
y gruñera en su interior por ser descubierto mientras sus atenciones se extendían,
como si de repente todas sus luces hereditarias hubieran aumentado
por un acceso de color, una nueva e inadvertida ligera turbación,
la más pequeña lámpara, que su pujante fulgor sumara, al que él diera
un nombre y privilegio sobre lo ordinario de su lugar común …
Un fulgor que sumara a lo que era real y sy vocabulario,
igual que alguna cosa primera al ir entrando en árboles septentrionales,
les suma todo el vocabulario del Sur,
igual que la primera luz solitaria del cielo vespertino, en primavera,
crea un nuevo universo de la nada cuando se suma ella,
igual que una mirada o un toque revela sus imprevistas magnitudes.
- Wallace Stevens (La Roca. Traducción de Daniel Aguirre)