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ADSactly Literature: José Antonio Ramos Sucre or the transmuted death


3 months agoSteemit11 min read

José Antonio Ramos Sucre (1920) Source

José Antonio Ramos Sucre or the transmuted death

Dear readers, I would like to share with you a critical-essay work on one of the most important writers for Spanish-speaking literature of the 20th century, José Antonio Ramos Sucre (Cumaná, Venezuela, 1890 - Geneva, Switzerland, 1930), who was born on June 9 and died on June 13, that is, on the dates we are passing through.

He was the author of a strange work, out of place for its time and place, written almost entirely in the form of a poem in prose, by very few cultivators in general, with all the elaboration of his broad humanist and literary intellectual training. The transcendent literary value of his poetic work was claimed late, and for a few decades it has been translated into several languages and begun to be studied in universities and literary research centres in different countries.

I've felt the stupor and happiness of death.
Ramos Sucre

The writer is the one who writes so he can die
and who gets his power to write
of an anticipated relationship with death
Maurice Blanchot

An everlasting presence

Inseparable duality of life and death. The cornerstone on which human beings have built their culture, as Freud well noted in his studies. In spite of changing face and clothing, death permeates the human course, and although sometimes expelled from the concept of life in some moments of history, it returns to enter us through the window. It is an immanence, an inexorable attribute of the human. In this regard, Cioran (1977), that lucid heterodox, reflects:

[...] there is something that comes from ourselves, that is ourselves, an invisible reality, but internally verifiable, an unusual and everlasting presence, that can be conceived at any moment and that we never dare to admit [...]: it is death, the true criterion.

Meditation on death is at the heart of life's conduct. It has come to dominate the thought and work of philosophers and poets throughout the history of our culture. Philippe Ariès, in his study Man before death, gives us an account of the complex evolution of this thought from the earliest times to the present day. It is worth mentioning, for example, the meditation of a religious man like Calvin (16th century), who expresses in his words a conception of death with features that are very contemporary:

We are horrified by death because we apprehend it not as it is in itself, but as sad, macillating and repugnant [...] We flee before it, but it is because [...] we do not take the trouble to look at it. (quoted by Ariès)

Knight, Death and the Devil, by Albrecht Dürer (engraving of 1513) Source

This living with death in mind will be found in different authors and in different moments of culture. It will reach a fundamental expression and strength in the romantic period, when death and sleep occupy the poetic and vital marrow of its most conspicuous representatives, as we can see in the following fragment of Lamartine (quoted by Ariès):

I salute you, O death, celestial liberator.
You do not appear to me under this dismal aspect
Who for a long time has lent you fear or error...
Your forehead is not cruel, your gaze is not perfidious.
For help from sorrows a gracious God guides you;
You do not annihilate, you liberate: your hand
Celeste messenger, carry a divine torch...

Death, then, is personalised, clothed with a liberating and saving sense. This sense will survive, acquiring new biases in poets such as Baudelaire, Rimbaud, Lautréamont and Mallarmé. It will be an essence rediscovered in life, in the self, to the point of nesting in the very challenge of creation as an agony of the work. An example in Baudelaire (quoted by Ariès) illustrates this:

It is Death that comforts, alas, and makes us live.
It is the goal of life and it is the only hope,
that like an elixir takes us up and intoxicates us
and gives us courage to walk into the night...

This definitive presence of death, the immanence of the human, is summed up by Rilke, the maker of a work biased by death, in a sentence of moving poetic tempera: "The great death that each one carries within himself" (quoted by Blanchot).

A work inhabited by death

Criticism has pointed to death as a capital dimension of the work of the poet Ramos Sucre. It constitutes a wide and diverse semantic field where the thematic dimension of the work interacts with the author's personality. Thus, Guillermo Sucre indicates that "prefiguring, dreaming or desiring death is one of the dominant experiences in this poetry"; or as Víctor Bravo puts it: "The poet penetrates the space of death through writing".
Death, flight and exile make up the structuring and thematic axes of Ramos Sucre's work, as formulated by Rosanna Boadas. They form a dialectic that seems to coincide with what Cioran (1984) meditated in this aphoristic phrase: "[...] to turn towards death in order to settle in it as a citizen of a new exile". The stories, characters, spaces and voices of his poems/stories constantly rewrite, with the rhythm of a poetic monotony, the obsession of death.

Rosanna Boadas has made this point:

(...) death is not an anguishing reality but the proclamation of a way of transcending. Sorrow lies on this side of the abyss. The space over there comes to represent the site of victory over death, which is life itself.

Ramos Sucre explores and prefigures the possible territory of death from a hallucinated subjectivity. He imagines the reaction and physiognomy of a transcended spirit, its transit along the path of the ungraspable, the primeval non-place for the rested stay.

Ophelia (1852), by John Everett Millais

Death: metaphor of Ramos Sucre's writing

The generality of critique, when dealing with death in the work of Ramos Sucre, has focused its attention on a thematic sense that would speak of the poet's conception of life. Although this approach is valid and its formulation certain, other connotations and senses to the image of death can be found. It is one of those senses that we will try to capture from now on. The poem "The lapidary", from his book The forms of fire, has been chosen for this purpose:

The feeling of rhythm directed the acts and speeches of the woman. Dante would have pointed out the value of magic figures by criticizing the date of her birth and the date of her death.
They returned their ashes from exile in a secular country. Love, from the taciturn ship, shed a bouquet of lilies in the sea of the funeral waves.
I saw from a height the arrival of his relics and the escort of the mourners and I withdrew to join the duel.
I drew by chisel a secret sign on the forehead of a volcanic stone, respected in the middle of the erosion of the coastline and next to the port of return.
The sign includes my name and that of the deceased and has been carved with the exquisiteness of a historical handwriting. I have invented it in order to awaken in those to come, stubborn in making sense, an ineffable yearning and a hopeless discontent.

The choice of the title of the poem requires the voice of the speaker. It is about a character: a lapidary. The voice of the tombstone maker places us from the beginning before a situation linked to death.

But who dies in the story presented in the text? Aware of the ambiguity and indeterminacy characteristic of Ramos Sucre's texts, we might dare to say: it speaks to us of the death of a woman. We are given the data to identify it: this woman has been related to Dante, since he "had pointed out the value of magic figures by criticizing the date of her birth and the date of her death". If we know something of Dante Alighieri's work, we know that a woman occupied his poetic vision: Beatriz; in her book Vida Nueva, largely autobiographical, built on the basis of mathematical symbols of Kabbalistic resonance (3 and 9, as she will also do in Divine Comedy), sings of love for this woman and the presentiment of her death.


It is worth noting in this regard how Ramos Sucre returns, once again, to the rapprochement between love and death, as he had already done in poems such as "Prelude" and "The Tribulation of the Novice", to cite just two of the many examples that populate his work.

But this is not what we are interested in considering in the poem, but what can be perceived in its final segments. This lapidary, observer of death, sculpts "with the exquisiteness of a historical letter" "a secret sign". Here we must point out the game that Ramos Sucre plays with the meanings of the word "lapidary", which, according to the DRAE, also alludes to the profession of engraving precious stones. The inscription is characterized by "exquisiteness" and is made "on the forehead of a volcanic stone".

And the voice tells us that the sign includes its name and that of the dead. The lapidary, if retracted from joining the duel, is inscribed in the unity with death. Somehow the death of the character can also be postulated.

All this allows us to formulate a double metaphor, in which the lapidary would be the image of the writer and the work of that image of writing, in particular, of the writer Ramos Sucre and of his writing of and for death.

Like the lapidary, Ramos Sucre has engraved a secret sign, a hermetic work, pierced by mystery, which even today awakens "an ineffable yearning and a hopeless discontent". A work, as he himself referred to it, worked with an accented and refined sense, with a demanding and hard effort ("with chisel strokes"), like the craftsman who carves a precious stone. A work engraved on the hard matter of a severe and isolated life, alien to the "erosion" of the world and in permanent search of a journey, of an interminable exile, although waiting for the return, as located in "that port of return".

This writer constitutes his work for eternity ("I have created an immortal work", Ramos Sucre declares in a letter to his brother Lorenzo), and its inscription on it implies the act of death, the assumption of a common destiny that makes it a "secret sign".

Gravestone (71 d,C. -130 d,C.)

The poet departs from the world to write, and in the making of his work transmutes the materials of his life. Exiled, he dies to normal life, transfiguring the work, transfiguring into the work. Blanchot says: "true death becomes true in the intimacy of transmutation".

Like Mallarmé, Kafka and Rilke, Ramos Sucre creates a work that is a metaphor for his death, because in it he is annihilated and transmuted into a secret sign. His writing involves an experience of death, foreign and his own, understood in the same sign.

(Note: There are international Spanish editions of Ramos Sucre's work such as the Fondo de Cultura Económica (Mexico), which can be found at link and in English here. You can see more about Ramos Sucre at link.

Bibliographic references

Ariès, Philippe (1987). Man in the face of death Madrid: Taurus.
Blanchot, Maurice (1969). The literary space. Buenos Aires: Paidos.
Boadas, Rosanna (1989). Ramos Sucre and the space of the accursed poet. Caracas: mimeographed edition.
Bravo, Victor (1981). Ramos Sucre: la escritura como itinerario hacia la muerte, in Ramos Sucre before the critics. Caracas: Monte Ávila.
Cioran, E.M. (1977). Breviary of rottenness. Madrid: Taurus.
Cioran, E.M. (1984). Silogisms of bitterness. Caracas: Monte Ávila.
Ramos Sucre, José A. (1980). Complete work. Caracas: Ayacucho Library.
Sucre, Guillermo (1985). *The mask, the transparency. Mexico: FCE.

Written by @josemalavem

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