Diego S. Garrocho reminded us in the pages of ABC that «almost all geniuses have some sadness». And of tragedy, I would add, which is the continuous bass of the creator: the music that imposes itself even in spite of the apparent joy of its lyrics. Here, I call tragedy the abyss that opens at the feet of man and to which the artist looks out if he does not decide to close his eyes and use his talent for other less noble tasks. Contemplating the abyss, precisely defining its limits and fulfilling his obligations, while longing to transcend it -or, better, to turn that darkness into light and beauty- is part of the work of the true artist and also of the man who tries to maintain some remnant of dignity in his life.
I was ruminating about all of this while rereading these days Central Europe, the great novel by the American writer William T. Vollmann. Vollmann pursues, in this work between fiction and historical reality, the testimony of those men who put their lives at stake to defend freedom in the tragic years of 20th century Europe. I reread Vollmann because to do so is also to read about the war between Russia and Ukraine, and to wonder about the destiny of a continent that ideologies have spoiled, I don’t know if definitively. But, more important than big words and solemn speeches, are the biographies of those who made their lives examples for us. I thought of some of them: of the women – for example – to whom Osip Mandelstam sang in exile; of Ana Akhmatova, whose Requiem is also the funeral dirge of humanity; and of Blessed Franz Jägerstätter, about whom Terrence Malick made a fascinating film, A Hidden Life. «I am already free,» said that Austrian peasant prisoner of the Nazis, when they offered him freedom in exchange for signing his adhesion to a political regime he knew to be criminal. «I am already free» could be the motto of the man who looks into an abyss that promises him the false freedom from evil.
Going through the notes I took years ago while reading Central Europe, I came across a conversation I had then with the Spanish historian Joseba Louzao about Erich Mühsam. A Jew and an anarchist, Mühsam was one of the first victims of Nazism as early as 1934. Before ending his life, the Nazis had broken his teeth, branded his skin with a red-hot swastika and fractured the fingers of one hand. And in spite of everything Mühsam did not collapse, but wrote: «Do not believe in my suicide». Louzao told me about his end: «There was a monkey in the camp who had escaped from a traveling circus. They decided to bring it into Mühsam’s cell so that he could attack it. To their surprise the animal did not attack the poet, but embraced him. Who would have known that mankind would be saved in a German cell by a monkey? Of course, the guards did not consent to the answer and tortured the monkey to death. Müsham was murdered, taken to a latrine where he was hung with a rope to make believe that he had committed suicide.» «Do not believe in my suicide,» Mühsam said; and no, we do not believe it.
The genius, the true artist, but also the martyr or the one who fights for justice, are built between hope and the sadness of reality. They understand that knowing consists in giving each thing its due, which does not exclude assuming a long shadow. It is the twofold mystery of charity and evil, of the best and the worst of the human condition. And no one can escape, I believe, this destiny that leads you to one port or another, according to our choices.