Excerpt: 'Prometheus and Company' by Eduardo Wilde
Translated by Jessica Sequeira
Eduardo Wilde (1844 – 1913) was a prominent doctor in Buenos Aires who dedicated himself to finding cures for yellow fever (a serious problem in the city at the time) as well as the hiccup. Associated with the ‘Generación del 80’, the city’s fin de siècle governing élite, Wilde came from an Anglo-Argentine background but was deeply appreciative of French culture.
Distantly related to Oscar Wilde, he is similarly attentive to the absurdities & cruelties of modern life. His experiments in the essay continue to read as innovations of form, literary modes of inquiry that are both reflective & ironic. A philosophical comedian, he takes on themes ranging from the pleasures of cemeteries to the burden of having so many imported French bibelots at home that he must pay friends to remove them. While it may not be desirable to write like Wilde today, his brash whimsy does have its charm, and opens new possibilities for a style at once satirical & sincere. This semi-autobiographical excerpt is taken from the collection Prometheus & Company.
First forays into verbal expression
The influence of sound on words, and the tendency to replace substance with accident, was always strange and powerful in Boris’ mind. Every person, object, event, period and concrete or abstract entity corresponded with a color, sound, taste, scent, form or likeness. The object and the idea with which it was associated occupied the same space in his brain.
The name Diego represented an ordinary bar of soap, in the shape of a cube. Ensebio produced the idea of a thick tallow candle. Francisco meant a mature man, dressed in a gray suit. Rodríguez, a piece of cheese with greenish veins. (Note: Boris knew Don Francisco Rodríguez, a grocer from Tupiza who sold old and spoiled cheese, and always wore gray clothes.) Tucumán was the color orange; Buenos Aires, mother of pearl; Córdoba, dark purple; Salta, green; La Rioja, coffee; Mendoza, the color of chalk; Jujuy, yellow.
No one could dislodge these ideas from his head. As soon as he heard a name, figure, color, noise or other sensation, the alter ego of the person or thing designated would jump up before him. Mondays were the color of a somewhat dull tin can. Tuesdays were green cypresses, who could doubt it? Wednesdays were bright yellow. Thursdays were also yellow, but like the yolk of an egg. Fridays were pale green. Saturdays were gray lead, similar to the sky on a cloudy day. Sundays were the color red, not very lively. The months did not have defined colors, but in the palette of his impressions he would never mistake the tint of April for that of August.
There was no word in the language whose meaning he did not know, and for which he did not provide a known representation. And so to pray [rezar] was an act the color of lead, because Don José Sánchez Reza had a tall hat from Chinchilla that color. Matter (humor, suppuration, material): a somewhat thick yellowish liquid. Moral: a copper object. Honor: a tumor, a swelling. Judgment: an unfriendly tabby cat (here the line of reason drops into an unfathomable abyss).
Add to this the bizarre conceptions of things he already knew. For example, according to him, to make a book the only thing needed was a greater or lesser number of words, all different, one after the other. The value of a work was related to their number: to make another book, one simply needed another collection of words. The idea that books might contain phrases, or say something, never even entered his head. This showed a strange and inexplicable lack of common sense, and one can hardly imagine such aberrations, given the evidence presented by each moment.
First steps in this miserable and diverse world (following Espronceda)
Brief digression on dates
“Why should I care where or when Boris was born?” some rude person might ask — the public, for instance, were it to read these pages. Their author might reply by saying, “It doesn’t matter to you at all, I agree. In the same way your observation matters to no one, for you could make the same complaints about any number of tales, chronicles, histories, stories or biographies that do the rounds of this world.”
Whether a battle took place on 24 May or 24 November may be all the same to you, but not for those for whom the date is a symbol: those made military pensioners because of dead relatives the day of the war, for instance. Six months difference in a pension for an inconsolable widow counts for something! If the news from Tupiza doesn’t matter to you, don’t read it and we’ll end the matter there. Do you think I’m writing for you? I’m writing for myself, just as all authors seeking the good of humanity write for themselves!
You must be aware that time is continuous. If we divide it into larger or smaller sections, we do so for reasons of political and domestic economy, with the aim of recording the dates in an “almanac”. Without this life is impossible. What would become of history, chronicle and biography without dates? Take them away from society, and world governments would be without civil registries, property taxes, patent laws, national holidays, congratulations, condolences, social life, gifts for 25 December and 1 January, and a fixed length of time for seasons, solstices and equinoxes.
You forget the universal advantages of agreeable anniversaries, because you, enlightened and moronic public, forget you are grocers, haberdashers, shopkeepers, shoemakers, tailors, jewelers, traders. In a word: you sell, as obligatory or polite gifts, jars of preserves, ribbons, dress patterns, buttons, clothes and watches, all those at hand, at prices that would earn you a penalty for forced labor were it not for your recognized commercial honorability!
This parenthesis concluded, as important as any in a classical book, it is good to remember that in Tupiza there are no newspapers, learned demagogues, hypocritical and self-sacrificing tribunes or professional defenders of the rights of the people, appointed by themselves.
The origin of things
For Boris there were two categories. In the first were the objects he had seen produced from the Earth, including clothes, hats, shoes, mud utensils, tables, chairs and other tools for carpentry, locks, bolts and blacksmith’s items, trees, flowers, fruits, legumes, bushes, pumpkins, melons, watermelons, peas, wheat, corn, beans, chickpeas and foods dug up like potatoes, artichokes, turnips and other species.
Anything that did not fall in these categories had to be found somewhere else, already made. Getting hold of them required nothing but picking them off the ground or off the low layers of plants. No doubt this is what the shopkeepers, merchants and other traders who brought goods to Tupiza did.
Boris saw no difficulty in things occurring like this. The earth — by the same procedure it used to make marvelous flowers, gigantic trees, delicious fruits, raw metals, ingots, mercury (liquid silver), oils from mines like petroleum, precious stones and other objects — could also make watches, porcelain plates, metal teapots, glass jars and everything not crafted by hand.
What called the most attention in Boris’s ideas regarding the origins of objects was his eccentric ideas regarding boxes of sardines, which he considered seasonal fruits. Such an absurdity should not provoke laughter, or lead to judgments of the boy’s intellectual sanity, as it derives from well-grounded reasons, which I will now enumerate.
First: Boxes of sardines only circulated in Tupiza during the season of Lent and Holy Week. They were never eaten outside that season.
Second: The exterior of sardine boxes was metallic and hard. Other products also exist with a hard exterior: walnuts, hazelnuts, almonds, pomegranates, coconuts. Those products with a soft exterior, such as peas, lentils, broad beans, etc, only imply a difference in degree.
Third: The shiny white boxes of sardines contain shiny objects covered in a similar metallic casing. In this sardines are no different from nuts, almonds, hazelnuts, etc., which also have an internal casing in a color analogous to that of the exterior.
Fourth: How could nature enclose sardines in boxes if no crack can be seen for them to enter? That is a serious objection, but so is this one. How can nature enclose some fruits, pits, seeds, pulps, geometric sections and partition walls without the outer wrapper of those products, such as the orange rind, showing signs of being opened? Confess that if the existence of sardines in boxes is beyond comprehension, so is the inner content of fruits, gourds and grain-containing husks.
Fifth: There are flowers that are fragrant, and fruits that are delicious and perfumed. The shape of the first is a refined art, the second varied and inexplicable. No one will deny that to make a flower growing in the air — an orchid, a hundred thousand pansies, an infinite variety of chrysanthemums, dahlias, roses and carnations all drawn in the most artistic ways, with differing scents and colors — is far more difficult than a mere box of sardines.
In addition, a question of fairness presents itself: Crags, rocks, stones and pieces of metal allow trees and bushes to emerge from within them. Why shouldn’t trees and thickets in their turn produce stones, rocks and metals? No one explained to Boris the impossibility of a plant producing metallic products: all the wise men of the earth have been unable to prove the impossibility of this phenomenon!
Lastly, did Boris even know the box was metal? Don’t we see minerals emerge from the mouth of an elephant, their tusks? Hard teeth from the gums of animals? Horns, nails and hair from the soft parts of an organism? To explain this is as difficult as to deny the possibility of Earth producing vessels of food like boxes of sardines!
Boris stands justified.
About the Authors:
Eduardo Wilde (June 15, 1844 – September 5, 1913) was an Argentine writer, physician and politician.
Jessica Sequeira lives and writes in Buenos Aires.