By Jason Wilson
This excerpt, by a truly eminent critic and Emeritus Professor at University College London, is from a forthcoming book on surrealism from Mexico to Argentina. It deals with that fascinating and convoluted mix which is poetry, madness and literary legacy. It is also a very revealing testimony of a brief encounter in a dilapidated mental hospice in Buenos Aires
At a surrealist party held at José Viñals’s rented flat, I met a young poet called Vicente Zito Lema, with long dark hair who approached me and announced: ‘I am not a surrealist’. He refused to be catalogued by a European academic like me, researching surrealists in Argentina. I quipped back: ‘All the surrealists say the same thing!’ He gave me a copy of his rebellious book titled Feudal cortesía en la prisión de cerebro (Feudal courtesy in the prison of the brain), 1969, which I later carefully read, though the title said it all. He also ran a surrealist magazine called Talismán. He gave me a copy with Zito Lema and his wife naked on the cover. But that kind of provocation ended and Zito Lema became political as the climate changed in the city. He landed the job of editing Crisis (replacing Eduardo Galeano, the essayist and historian). It was an excellent political and literary monthly, but he had to move house every night. As a lawyer Zito Lema began defending trade unionists and the disappeared. He never was disappeared and was brave resisting the temptations to become a guerrillero. Years after I bumped into him at a poetry reading. He stood, looking down and recited a long repetitious and sentimental poem. He looked worn out, even depressed. I was relieved he was alive.
But after the party he took me to visit an old poet who was one of the few genuine maudits in Argentina named Jacobo Fijman. He was born a Jew in Besarabia, Russia (today Rumania). He landed in Buenos Aires in 1902, aged four. He became a self-taught teacher of French, and an accomplished violinist. He spent his first spell in an asylum in 1921, just before joining the avant-garde group around the magazine Martín Fierro. He published three books over five years. In Europe, he converted to Catholicism. He then seemed to vanish from view, wandering about Argentina as an itinerant fiddler. From 1942 on he was in asylums until Vicente Zito Lema came to his help.
‘You must come with me and meet him’ said Zito Lema, who was only twenty minutes late at a café. ‘You’re too English’, he laughed, ‘always on time’. We climbed on to a colectivo whose windows were so dirty I hadn’t a clue where we are going. What I did note is that when we got off it was in a factory zone, where people in the street were less white. Fijman was in the vast, ramshackle Hospital Neuropsiquiátrico Doctor José Borda, known as the Borda. It looked like another factory. Guards checked the packet that Zito Lema was bringing (actually, an old jacket) as an old man in pajamas sidled up to me and asked me for money. We climbed two floors past depressing wards and rows of beds and scratched graffiti on the corridor walls, like a vast public lavatory. A nurse recognized Zito Lema and led us into a ward of about 30 beds, with filthy sheets and ragged blankets. There was a one-bar electric heater on. Most of the old men were calmly sitting on their beds as they had just taken their pills.
Fijman was in a corner, asleep, with sheets drawn right over his head. Zito Lema delicately woke him and invited him for a coffee, ‘I have an English friend with me’, he said. Fijman was old, shriveled and tiny, but his eyes were alert and inquisitive. He was fully dressed in bed, his trousers hitched up with string, and he wore filthy old slippers. We crossed a yard to a warehouse café as he told me of his two trips to Europe, his meeting with André Breton, and abruptly cited passages in Latin from Virgil and from the Song of Songs, with a lucidity that amazed me. He used to spend most of his free time in the old National Library on México Street where he taught himself Greek and Latin. ‘I live here’, he said, ‘because I have no money, the asylum is my pensión for the poor’.
After talking about his painting, he suddenly launched into an attack on homosexual priests. In Belgium he had tried to become a priest, but they were obsessed with masturbation, how many times you had made love with a man; those were not spiritual exercises. ‘I’m an ascetic, I have lied, but am not a pederast’, he said. Then he said in an aside, ‘when I last talked to Virgil’. I was used to poets saying, ‘when I last read Virgil’, but talking directly to the great dead poets took me by surprise. He continued, ‘from a child I was called a poet; poetry is from the mind, which I call God’.
All the while, another old man, without a forehead, and spittle all over his face and a wispy beard, stood by my side and every now and then touched my elbow, then suddenly grabbed my empty coffee cup and swallowed the dregs. After an hour of chat, Fijman accompanied us to the main door and let us out.
‘Spontaneously I’m a surrealist’, Fijman had told Zito Lema. ‘The surrealists were authentic poets’ he continued, ‘but blasphemed and were satanic. I met Artaud in the Coupole in Paris, and after a glass of white wine nearly had a fight with him. I identified with God, he with the devil. Poets must be in God’s service. I am a saint, and the doctors labelled my calling as a saint my sickness. They haven’t a clue what ‘saint’ means. Even the Church bans saints. Nobody really understands the mind’, he added. ‘When I was in Uruguay, I read Lautréamont’s poetry; he was quite mad, a vicious man, a monster. Like Artaud, he was a vagrant, and I was attracted to both of them, but was saved by reading holy books and taking mass. They were not martyrs, just perverts’. Already in the space of a conversation, he had interacted with Breton, with Artaud and with Lautréamont (pen name of Isidore Ducasse and born in Uruguay), a trilogy of authentic surrealists, but he was not boasting.
Fijman had been adopted by the local Argentine surrealists in the 1950s. The leading surrealist poet at the time, Enrique Molina, often visited Fijman in the Borda, and in a poem titled ‘Poeta en hospicio’ pictured him smiling, free from the curse of trying to find happiness and from the stink of money. Molina noted the old poet’s sabiduría insensata [senseless wisdom]. Fijman was in touch with his inner, marvellous world. Molina was working as a city librarian when I met him.
Aldo Pellegrini, a medical doctor and poet, who ran a bookshop called El Dragón on Suipacha 1051 that I went to nearly every day for 2 months in 1970, met many poets and painters and had sugary black coffees, told me that Fijman’s supposed madness was a sign that he had not given in and become domestic or academic as had all the other avant-garde poets, except for Oliverio Girondo. Girondo didn’t pretend to be a surrealist poet, was very rich and authentic. Pellegrini knew him well and belonged to his group that met in another house on Suipacha.
Girondo was behind the 1920s avant-garde magazine Martín Fierro and wrote its manifesto. It is a black humored piece of abusive writing. Girondo paid for Fijman’s trip to Europe in 1928, but he didn’t travel first class like his Maecenas. Girondo was annoyed that Fijman never stopped talking. In Europe, apart from meeting some of the surrealists, Fijman shook Unamuno’s hand and befriended Valle-Inclán. He converted to Catholicism there.
It was in 1926 that he published his first book of poems Molino rojo (the title in Fijman’s words refers to a red peppermill) and a prose piece in Martín Fierro (November 1926) about his stay in Montevideo (its port, its cerro, its seascape) called ‘La voz que dicta’. It told of his ‘madness’ in the form of receiving dictations from himself. The prose text opens: ‘Camino desesperado por la escollera gris y fría. Una lucidez extraordinaria domina mi espíritu; pero mis pies están helados‘ and ends: ‘ahora siento circular en mí una avalancha de ideas claras, risueñas, como nunca‘. The gap between his physical misery and his out-of-control mind life couldn’t be clearer. And in the background, is the raging sea.
Fijman’s second book came out in 1929, Hechos de estampas and his last Estrella de la mañana in 1931, alluding to his mystic outbursts. Then he was institutionalized in the Borda in 1942 where he spent 28 years. He was re-discovered by Vicente Zito Lema, the year before he died in 1970. His poems are hard to find, and I read them in Zito Lema’s magazine dedicated to Fijman.
In 1948, Leopoldo Marechal, a Peronist and a practicing Catholic, published his outrageous 741 paged novel Adán Buenosayres about the local porteño avant-gardists and their descent into hell. He too converted to Catholicism like his friend Fijman. Fijman was a central character in this roman à clef, disguised under the name of Samuel Tesler. He lived in a cheap boarding house in Villa Crespo, an immigrant, factory quarter, with Adam, the narrator. His room stunk. He never washed because he argued you should only be washed twice, when you’re born and when you die. He refused to work because he was still exhausted from his birth, after so many reincarnations. He had dedicated his life to thinking and being free. He kept a blackboard at hand to jot down his ideas. He labelled himself an autodidactic philosopher and was incredibly opinionated and poor. His tiny, smelly room was crammed with books.
Zito Lema published the police record of what they found in his room on the Avenida de Mayo 1276 in 1942 when he was committed to the Borda and it included: A door without a lock or key, a bed, a chair, some very used shoes, six records, two files with notes and drawings, 77 paperback and 9 hardback books. Fijman was an ascetic bohemian, who refused the lures of capitalism, rejected material objects and sensual pleasures. He found women inane and imagined them picking their noses. ‘Picture Helen of Troy pissing’, he said to Zito Lema, to de-glamourize erotic fantasies (as opposed to Neruda who went into ecstasies on hearing his Burmese lover pee in a pot). ‘You must study hard’, he told me, realizing that I was lazy and would sit on my notes for too long.
The sound of a woman pissing into a pot was discussed by the surrealists in the 6th session of their collaborations on sexuality in 1928. Raymond Queneau had asked the group: ‘What would you feel about seeing a woman urinate?’ and they all answered, very exciting, lovely to watch and pleasantly musical. It shows how far Fijman was from the French surrealists in their explorations of the pleasures of sex.
Carlos Mastronardi, a poet friend of Borges and a journalist, met Fijman in a bookshop where he was working part-time and remembered his worn-out clothes, his intensity, his convulsive loquacity. Fijman talked so fast that he knocked coffee over or scattered ash on his jacket. His opinions were categorical. A dark passion lurked behind all that he said. ‘He suffered Nietzsche’s madness’, said Mastronardi. Fijman once asked him what would happen if he knifed the bookshop owner, how many years prison would he get, as he was owed money. He was an extremist. Then he was sequestered into a pauper’s hospice. ‘I haven’t a clue’, said Mastronardi, ‘what became of Fijman. Nobody has seen him. God knows where he is’. Well, he was in the Borda. ‘Why did you stop writing poems’, Vicente Zito Lema asked him. Fijman answered: ‘First, because I couldn’t go on paying for my own publications. I had to eat. Then, I dedicated my life to scholastic philosophy. But most of all, I was scared of getting lost in literature and alienating God’. Fijman’s garrulity made him very porteño.
Was he the real surrealist, in and out of asylums? I think not. He was more a religious freak, a saint of the twentieth century. However, I didn’t see him as a poet of the marvellous as Enrique Molina did, but a lost soul, defeated by his attempts at being a holy man, by his soledad and pobreza. ‘My bones sing the mystery of the world’ Fijman wrote and I take that line as a summary of his poetry. All his poems were staccato and musical (after all he played the fiddle). But I liked Zito Lema, who looked at me when I asked him that question and he said, ‘you are too intelligent to be a surrealist poet’. I didn’t take it as an insult. I was just too critical and rational to rely on my feelings.
Jason Wilson is an Emeritus Professor at University College, London. He has published numerous books, including Octavio Paz. A study of his Poetics (CUP, 1979, into Spanish in 1980, reprinted in 2009) and Octavio Paz (Twayne, 1986), Jorge Luis Borges (Reaktion Books and Chicago University Press, 2006,
into Portuguese 2009, Chinese, 2011 and Turkish 2011), A Companion to Pablo Neruda.
Evaluating the Poetry (Tamesis, 2008 and paperback, 2014), He has edited and
translated Alexandre von Humboldt’s Personal Narrative of a Journey to the Equinoctial
Regions of the New Continent (Penguin Classics, 1995), His most recent publication is Living in the Sound of the Wind. A Personal Quest for W. H. Hudson, Naturalist and Writer from the River Plate (Constable, 2015, paperback 2016, into French 2018 and into Spanish, 2023, with Ateneo). He spends his time between London and Buenos Aires. He is currently writing on how he became a Hispanist. This is his first article for Perro Negro