February 2015

Brian Nicholson


"The Rosy Clouds Assumed the Annoying Shapes of Angels and Altars": The Visions of Silvina Ocampo

Silvina Ocampo, born in 1903, walked the same Argentine streets as Jorge Luis Borges, although she saw them differently. Borges, if you were to ask him, consulting his preface to Thus Were Their Faces, the new collection of Ocampo's short stories published by NYRB Classics, would cite his own failing eyesight, and contrast it to Ocampo's eye, trained as a painter in Europe under cubists, as an explanation. Ocampo's own take on the instruction she received, offered in her own introduction, points elsewhere.

I fought with Giorgio de Chirico and told him he sacrificed everything for the sake of color. He would answer, "What else is there besides color?" "You're right. But color disturbs me. You can't see the forms amidst so many colors."

I have as yet been unable to turn up an example of what exactly Ocampo's paintings looked like. Unlike the in-print editions of Leonora Carrington's books, that is not one of the author's own pieces upon her front cover. Rather, a Remedios Varo piece situates the stories within a container appropriately female, Spanish speaking, and surrealist.

Although De Chirico is the founder of the "scuola metafisica" ("metaphysical school") art movement considered a predecessor to surrealism, "surrealist" sits slightly uneasily as a term to describe the sort of writer Ocampo is. There is no shortage of twentieth-century artists who would actively claim that affiliation, but the group she selected as her peers is historically broader minded. Her closest affiliates, those she dined beside for many years, would be Borges and Adolfo Bioy Casares, with whom she coedited Antología de la Literatura Fantástica, including examples of their own work alongside that of Poe and Swedenborg, whom I mention specifically for those were authors Ocampo herself translated.

A prospective reader might see the association with Borges, and read the Calvino blurb on the back of the collection of her poetry, published by NYRB Poets, and think that this might be a similar writer to the two of them. A writer prone to abstractions, gently fabulist in the world postulated, that feels larger than the one we live in, through the invention of impossibilities to the physics that we know. Such thought experiments seem almost holy in their light, that, while lost in thought of theoretical abstractions, they've come across something that could illuminate the world. The magic in Ocampo's stories is less unique to her. Instead, she chooses as subject matter phenomena talked about widely, such as psychic abilities, divination, angels, and dreams. She does not need to invent books of infinite pages, for the world of what we know already contains things as strange as mirrors.

If you are thinking, "Mirrors aren't that weird," then congratulations on your no doubt hard-won rationality. For the rest of us, and I'm including my brothers and sisters in the animal kingdom here, mirrors are fucking bonkers. I understand the premise of realism to be that there are certain things all adults can take for granted. Ocampo takes us away from that mooring as soon as she can, and she severs the tether tied around the core of us. The book begins with a story called "Forgotten Journey," referring to the one taken en route to being born. We are reminded then that, from our memory's perspective, the question of how we arrived where we are, in existence at all, begins with a blank space. Let us remember now that, were it not for the mirror, included on the list of blank spaces would be our own faces.

Let us then humor reason to be a kind of light akin to God, that our existence might begin to be explained. This allows me to make mention of an idea Ocampo posits in her poetry: "I believe the light blinds you at times / and the darkness is a lamp." This is followed, in the next stanza, with the equally incredible "If your existence is different from your death, / why do you always kill yourself while alive." But let us retreat from that inquiry in realization that here we find the forms that Ocampo sought in painting. They appear much more readily, it turns out, in the black and white of text upon a page. In darkness we find the human, in all her irrational psychology and cruelty; we see a shading that defines our features, in the soul sitting unlit inside a head.

Ocampo is uninterested in seeking out some sort of objective Aleph. The supernatural strangeness that suffuses her stories is rooted in a fascination with characters whose psychology is inscrutable, elsewhere shown as capable of cruelty. While some of the stories here carry a gothic tone reminiscent of those Daphne Du Maurier stories NYRB collected under the title Don't Look Now, others, such as a story called "Mimoso," about an old woman who feeds her belovedly embalmed dog to a man she assumes suspected her of fucking it, circumvent this territory entirely to have the dark humor of a Flannery O'Connor, were she unbeholden to any deity. Such a story might not contain any outwardly fantastic elements, but through it we understand what people are like, and how they use the power they possess. Psychic abilities might enable one to perceive the world differently, but that might not necessarily redeem them so much as it further alienates from those nearby.

The story "Leopoldina's Dreams," the title story of a 1988 collection, Thus Were Their Faces, is essentially an expanded version of, tells of a girl who can summon the objects she dreams of to appear next to her upon waking. Her sisters are irritated at the meagerness of what this ability brings to her, and encourage her to dream of the treasures of wealth that could change their lives; but these, unknown to the life she's lived, are beyond her imaginings. The true joy of this story is not contained within that plot summary's set of cozy ironies, but rather in a frame the narration creates, foreshadowed in an early line, setting up a perfect punch line, which, if I were to summarize, I would do a disservice to how deeply delightful I found it to be. But I suppose I have to say it: One of her dreams is that her dog is writing her life story, and it is her dreaming this that allows her dog to write the pages we are reading. This frame of whimsy, contrasted against the gothic stylings of the narrative, allows the shape of the world to show itself with a palpable depth.

This brightness of tone is elsewhere created by a child's narrating. When such children witness violent actions, the question of how disturbed they are is left unanswered. Instead we are left to deal with the fact that the innocence of their worldview can exist within the same world as these acts of sadism. The violence is not more "true," it does not necessarily corrupt what it encounters. Ocampo does not view darkness as a stain that spreads, but merely as a shadow being cast, that spreads and diffuses depending on where the light is situated. In a story called "The Velvet Dress," the narrator interjects "How amusing!" often. That story ends in a woman's dying strangled by the garment that she wears. The fact that Ocampo wrote the story is a reminder that she does not necessarily mean "How amusing!" to be taken ironically, there is amusement to be found in such grotesquery.

Another way to phrase this codependent relationship between light and darkness inside the human soul would be Where There's Love, There's Hate, the title of the parodic mystery novel Ocampo coauthored with Bioy Casares, her husband, published in 2013 by Melville House. Rather than attempt to single out passages I suspect Ocampo authored, I will instead only say that giving a title like that to a collaboration with one's spouse, and to possess the goal of writing a book that both functions as an effective mystery novel even as it parodies the form, strike me as indicative of the sort of clear-sighted humor that she had.

Borges, in his introduction originally intended for the 1988 collection, writes of Ocampo's ability to see through people like glass, and attributes to her the mystic virtue of clairvoyance. It seems funny, then, that one of the stories not included in that collection, but appearing now, "The Impostor," has its narrator worry, "What if Maria Gismondi had the power of second sight so frequent among women?" as if mocking the male tendency to ascribe such qualities to the women they romanticize.

That novella stretches out enough to reveal strengths to her writing not otherwise evident, as the imagery-describing apparatus goes into overdrive to make things feel more vivid than they do in her more economical tales. That story contains the sentence that gives this essay its title, for instance, among other startling truths. Here the tendency for her stories' narration to create a frame for itself that changes the quality of light in which we read it mutates multiple times, allowing for digressions where characters attempt to recall their previous lives, while we as readers struggle to make sense of what the story is even about, waiting for the titular impostor to reveal himself amongst the various psychological and romantic intrigues. It offers enough wisdom to seem to comment on her other work, reminding us again that the world in everyday life is deeply strange, in ways easily taken for granted. One character, unable to dream, wishes deeply that he could. Another character sees a blind horse and prepares these words to say:

"A person who is capable of talking, of understanding, of reasoning, even if he was born blind, can come to know the world of forms and colors through words, through thought; but a blind animal, what secret labyrinths can it know, a prisoner of its movements, like an automaton? What hands, what kind voice will reveal the world to it?" I said, "Animals are the dreams of nature."

The strengths of that extended story are exemplary of the skillset that sets the prose Ocampo writes apart from her poetry. At least from the perspective of one who only has English-language translations to go by, the poetry is supplementary, and functions primarily to show her spirit as straightforwardly as possible. Her poetry is at its best in her later metaphysical mode, and those who feel at home in her stories' strangenesses and self-abnegating contradictions will find these pieces borderline anthemic. "I am everything, but nothing, nothing is mine," she writes at the conclusion of her poem "Song." The things she has seen and taken in have become her, but none of it belongs to her, for everything is elusive and temporary, and any claim she might stake will mean nothing after her death.

A world where Ocampo is dead is the world we exist in currently, and the stories and poetry she brought into it while alive are now allowed to be made into parts of an English-literate audience's being. We can ingest the decency of her, that all who knew her spoke of, before admitting in their next breath how befuddled they were by her fiction's cruelty. One of the poems now in print is one whose title translates to "Act of Contrition," where she writes:

I think: smoke and foliage look alike,
but only the leaves come back to life.
Of evil and good, shall I say the same?
No. Evil comes back to life in the abyss.

Alive as we are, we sit outside the abyss, and here in our strange world of shadowy forms and overwhelming color, her stories are alive, and unbelievably good.