Juan de Mairena

There is a certain kind of book I love. It doesn’t have a genre label. Some of its authors call their books novels, others fragments, others reflections. Often, the authors are really editors. It extends from the Scratch books of Lichtenberg to the Notices of Ludwig Hohl, and includes Rozanov’s Waste paper books and Pessoa’s Book of Disquiet. A leading theme, here, is the scratching, the hastily scribble gloss, the note one finds in one’s pocket and throws out. Waste paper is paper that has been used and lost its use, and perhaps aggressively wadded up. It is paper on the way to the waste paper basket. That is the social situation of these books – they are caught somewhere between the desk and the garbage. At least, in the imagination.

The waste book has a strong relation with the philosophical novel – and certain of the latter, such as Paul Valery’s M. Teste, go over the line. Perhaps the reason is that ideas in themselves – ideas in their natural setting – have as limited a place in modern life as mice have in modern homes. They are an accidental, corner feature of life. Even in jobs like research scientist or professor, “having ideas” is not in the job description – at best, creativity squeezes in there, but playing well with others, getting good grades, and producing acres of watertreading non-waste articles for journals is what counts, there.

Ideas are for losers.

I’ve just discovered another waste book – Juan de Mairena, by Antonio Machado. It was abridged and translated into English by Ben Belitt back in 1963, but that edition has long gone out of print. I discovered the book while lounging around in the Buffon Bibliotheque last week. The French translation is published by Anatolia: editions du rocher, who also publish the translations of Rozanov. Mairena is one of Machado’s heteronyms. He is a professor in a lycee, and the book consists of stray notes from his conversations and lectures.

Here’s a translation of the French translation of one of them.

“One says that there is no rule without an exception. Is that really the case? Myself, I don’t dare affirm it. In any case, if that confirmation contains a partial truth, it must be a truth of fact, the reason for which can’t be fully satisfied. Every exception, one adds, confirms the rule. This does not seem so evident; however, it is more acceptable, from the logical point of view. For if all exceptions belong to a rule, if there is an exception, there is a rule, and he who thinks exception thinks of a rule. This already constitutes a truth of reason, that is to say, a truism, a simple tautology which teaches us nothing. We can’t be satisfied with stopping here. So, let’s be more subtle in adding a thing that La Palice would never have dreamed of. [Lapallisade, or a truth a La Palice, is one that is absurdly self evident – R.] 

1. If every exception confirms the rule, a rule without an exception would be a non-confirmed rule, by no means a non-rule.
2. A rule with exceptions will always be stronger than a rule without exceptions, which will lack an exception to have itself confirmed.
3. A rule will be more of a rule the richer it is in exceptions.
4. The ideal rule will be composed of nothing but exceptions.”