A Universal History of Iniquity

A Universal History of Iniquity (1935)

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Preface to the First Edition

The exercises in narrative prose that constitute this book were performed from 1933 to 1934. They are derived, I think, from my rereadings of Stevenson and Chesterton, from the first films of von Sternberg, and perhaps from a particular biography of the Argentine poet Evaristo Carriego. Certain techniques are overused: mismatched lists, abrupt transitions, the reduction of a person’s entire life to two or three scenes. (It is this pictorial intention that also governs the story called “Man on Pink Corner.”) The stories are not, nor do they attempt to be, psychological.

With regards to the examples of magic that close this book, the only right I can claim to them is that of translator and reader. I sometimes think that good readers are poets as singular, and as awesome, as great authors themselves. No one will deny that the pieces attributed to Valery to his pluperfect Monsieur Edmond Teste are worth notoriously less than those of his wife and friends.

Reading, meanwhile, is an activity subsequent to writing — more resigned, more civil, more intellectual.

–J.L.B.
Buenos Aires
May 27, 1935

Preface to the 1954 Edition

I would define the baroque as that style that deliberately exhausts (or tries to exhaust) its own possibilities, and that borders on self-caricature. In vain did Andrew Lang attempt, in the eighteen-eighties, to imitate Pope’s Odyssey; it was already a parody, and so defeated the parodist’s attempt to exaggerate its tautness. “Baroco” was a term used for one of the modes of syllogistic reasoning; the eighteenth century applied it to certain abuses in seventeenth-century architecture and painting. I would venture to say that the baroque is the final stage in all art, when art flaunts and squanders it resources. The baroque is intellectual, and Bernard Shaw has said that all intellectual labor is inherently humorous. This humor is unintentional in the works of Baltasar Gracian but intentional, even indulged, in the works of John Donne.

The extravagant title of this volume proclaims its baroque nature. Softening its pages would have been equivalent to destroying them; that is why I have preferred, this once, to invoke the biblical words quod scripsi, scripsi (John 19:22), and simply reprint them, twenty years later, as they first appeared. They are the irresponsible sport of a shy sort of man who could not bring himeslf to write short stories, and so amused himself by changing and distorting (sometimes wiithout aesthetic justification) the stories of other men.

[…]

The learned doctors of the Great Vehicle teach us that the essential characteristic of the universe is its emptiness. They are certainly correct with respect to the tiny part of the universe that is this book. Gallows and pirates fill its pages, and that word iniquity strikes awe in its title, but under all the storm and lightning, there is nothing. It is all just appearance, a surface of images — which is why readers may, perhaps, enjoy it. The man who made it was a pitiable sort of creature, but he found amusement in writing it; it is to be hoped that some echo of that pleasure may reach its readers.

–J.L.B.

4 thoughts on “A Universal History of Iniquity

  1. And when thinking of exemplary readers reading ‘intentioned’ writings, there is of course, Augustine and his “Confessions”, ostensibly the first western autobiography to be written; where he writes that,
    ‘the man who claims not to write for anyone, but for only himself, lies — every person who writes, writes for a reader, even if it be for a ghost peering from behind his shoulder’.

  2. Writing and talking to dead thinkers are definitely time-honoured traditions.

    And probably the greatest writer to employ this device, is Chuang Tzu;
    with his fantastic caricaturing (and of course, very sly puppeteering) of Lao Tzu, Confucius and his disciples, the eminent scholars of the 稷下学宫/Jixia Academy (the Oxbridge center of learning in its day), and even the hallowed Sage-Kings of antiquity 堯舜禹-Yao/Shun/Yu. And the last part (caricaturing of the sage-kings) would certainly have earned him condemnation and censorship (which it probably did, initially) from the Establishment, but for the sheer brilliance of his writing, which made it impossible to suppress eventually.

    After all, Chuang Tzu had already disclaimed (some say, perjured) himself, with the following:

    莊周聞其風而悅之。以謬悠之說,荒唐之言,無端崖之辭,時恣縱而不儻,不以觭見之也。以天下為沈濁,不可與莊語;以卮言為曼衍,以重言為真,以寓言為廣。獨與天地精神往來,而不敖倪於萬物,不譴是非,以與世俗處。其書雖瑰瑋而連犿無傷也,其辭雖參差而諔詭可觀。彼其充實不可以已…

    When Chunag Tzu heard of such subjects, he was delighted with them. (He discussed them), using strange and mystical expressions, wild and extravagant words, and phrases to which no definite meaning could be assigned. He constantly indulged his own wayward ideas, but did not make himself a partisan, nor look at them as peculiar to himself.
    Since he thought the world was so mired in the mud that they wouldn’t be able to understand serious language, he used words that were gracefully redundant, repeatedly reiterating what would ring true and told fables most people could find a way to relate to.
    He chiefly cared to occupy himself with the spirit-like operation of heaven and earth, and did not try to rise above the myriads of things. He did not condemn the agreements and differences of others, so that he might live in peace with the prevalent views. Though his writings may seem to be sparkling trifles, there is no harm in amusing one’s self with them; though his phraseology be ever-varying, its turns and changes are worth being looked at – the fulness and completeness of his ideas cannot be exhausted.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jixia_Academy
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sage_Kings

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