After-Dinner Conversation

[ Latin American Studies ]

After-Dinner Conversation

The Diary of a Decadent

By José Asunción Silva

Translated with an introduction and notes by Kelly Washbourne

The first English translation of one of Spanish America's finest fin de siècle novels.



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5.5 x 8.5 | 270 pp.

ISBN: 978-0-292-70979-9

Lost in a shipwreck in 1895, rewritten before the author's suicide in 1896, and not published until 1925, José Asunción Silva's After-Dinner Conversation (De sobremesa) is one of Latin America's finest fin de siècle novels and the first one to be translated into English. Perhaps the single best work for understanding turn-of-the-twentieth-century writing in South America, After-Dinner Conversation is also cited as the continent's first psychological novel and an outstanding example of modernista fiction and the Decadent sensibility.

Semi-autobiographical and more important for style than plot, After-Dinner Conversation is the diary of a Decadent sensation-collector in exile in Paris who undertakes a quest to find his beloved Helen, a vision whom his fevered imagination sees as his salvation. Along the way, he struggles with irreconcilable urges and temptations that pull him in every direction while he endures an environment indifferent or hostile to spiritual and intellectual pursuits, as did the modernista writers themselves. Kelly Washbourne's excellent translation preserves Silva's lush prose and experimental style. In the introduction, one of the most wide-ranging in Silva criticism, Washbourne places the life and work of Silva in their literary and historical contexts, including an extended discussion of how After-Dinner Conversation fits within Spanish American modernismo and the Decadent movement. Washbourne's perceptive comments and notes also make the novel accessible to general readers, who will find the work surprisingly fresh more than a century after its composition.

  • Acknowledgments
  • Translator's Introduction: "An Art Both Nervous and New"
  • After-Dinner Conversation: Translation of De sobremesa
  • Notes
  • Selected Bibliography

In the hands of the masters the novel and criticism are means of presenting to the public the terrifying problems humanity must confront, and of distinguishing psychological complications; the reader no longer asks of the book that it amuse him, but rather that it make him think and see the mystery ensconced in every particle of the Great All.

After-Dinner Conversation, 14 April

I dreamt back then of fashioning a poem
Of an art both nervous and new, a daring, supreme opus

—"A Poem," José Asunción Silva

Against the impossible, what good is desire?

—José Asunción Silva

It is perhaps regrettable that the full fin de siècle flowering of Latin American prose should not appear until 1925, well into avant-garde times, a belatedness that may help account for After-Dinner Conversation's status as a "lost novel." The work actually is thrice lost: first literally, in the wreck of the Amérique; second in its rewritten manuscript; and third in critical discourse, at least until very recent times.

The work's ontological status as a re-created entity is perhaps too much with us as we read; no reader fails to let Silva's tragic biography intrude on the text. We read a text that mimics a shadow-text left somewhere on the ocean floor. Is it necessarily inferior to the original draft? We must ask ourselves if it is valid to compare an existing work to a conjectural one. Regardless, the novel was long deemed incomplete or chaotic—read "failed"—by critics, an assumption that now is being challenged by a chorus of readers.

This introduction will give the reader an indication of José Asunción Silva's life and times, particularly the latter. Its purpose is twofold: on the one hand, to collect and to some extent critique the main currents of thought on a key work of Spanish American modernismo; on the other, to offer possible avenues of further inquiry, and to delve deeper into aspects that may have been overlooked or unduly neglected, and to connect them. In the order treated, these are the areas covered in the pages to follow: the life and work of Silva; the context of De sobremesa's composition and the myths around it; a few words on the phenomenon of modernismo in Spanish America; the work's setting, including a discussion of Paris in the imaginary of the day; a consideration of genre and language, leading to a broad definition of Decadence; a tour of the interior spaces of the novel, particularly the opening and closing scenes, illustrating Decadent sensibility and the treatment of time in the novel, experimental for its day; the reception of the work; erotics and naming; religiosity; illness, including madness, nerves, and tuberculosis; energy and its primacy; the representation of doctors and medical discourse; the economic context and material culture in which Fernández moves; and finally, a word on the translation. Let us begin, then, with Silva himself.

José Asunción Silva's life is the stuff of legend, and, all too occasionally, of fact. Born José Asunción Salustiano Facundo in 1865, Silva was the precocious son of a well-to-do father who was also known as a writer of artículos de costumbres, or manners and customs articles. Pulled from the democratically integrated schools, he was then educated amid the wealthy Bogotá youth; scornful, proud, and apparently something of a Fauntleroy in dress and manners, he soon earned the nicknames el niño bonito ("pretty boy") and "José Presunción" ("José the Conceited," a pun on his name). In 1870, his sister Elvira was born, who was exceedingly close to the poet and with respect to whom Silva's reputation would be suspect for years as insinuations of an unnatural relationship persisted. Some say these rumors began with a legend surrounding an illustration in his posthumous Poesías in 1908. Matters were certainly not helped by the intimacy of his internationally famous "Nocturno," which was unquestioningly understood to be a grieving rumination on Elvira's loss and lingering presence in the sensitive youth's life. He began helping in his father's store (1878), and reading French Romantic works, which he translated (1882). In 1885 he was sent to Paris to establish commercial ties; he read books on medicine voraciously. He traveled, as his protagonist later would, to London and Switzerland. After much frequenting of salons, where he socialized with the likes of Stephane Mallarmé, Oscar Wilde, and Paul Verlaine, Silva was transformed like Lucien in Balzac's Lost Illusions, returning dandified and mocking, stifled and alienated by the provinciality of fin de siglo Bogotá. In 1886 he was left at the head of the family business; his father died the following year, and the business suffered. By now, though, Silva was a star of the first order in tertulias, or literary gatherings, attended by such figures as Baldomilo Sanín Cano, Emilio Cuervo Márquez, Roberto Suárez, E. Rivas Groot, Clímaco Soto Borda, Isaac Arias Argáez, and D. Arias Argáez. Eight of his poems appeared in 1886 in the important Colombian anthology, La lira nueva ("The New Lyre"), compiled by José María Rivas Groot for publication in Bogotá, but perhaps only one—"Estrofas" ("Stanzas"), popularly known as "Ars"—hinted at his uncommon talent.

In 1890, the year Oscar Wilde's Faustian novel The Picture of Dorian Gray appeared, Silva wrote "La protesta de la Musa" ("The Protest of the Muse"), a plea to end satiric poetry, a genre which he himself would later perfect in his "Sinfonía color de fresas con crema" ("Strawberry-and-Cream-Colored Symphony"), an artful and scathing lampoon of the devices and preciocité that had gone to extremes in the work of Rubén Darío's followers. The year 1891 would bring an irretrievable loss: Elvira, his muse and only confidant, fell ill with pneumonia and died. He was devastated, emotionally and financially; the latter state he had hidden from even his closest friends. The next year the court seizures began; Silva had next to nothing to be confiscated, yet there were fifty-two claims against him, including one by his own grandmother. He continued writing occasional critical articles and poems, and was named to a diplomatic post in Caracas (1894).

It was in 1895 that Silva's life took one more ill-fated, heartbreaking turn. The steamship Amérique, on which he was traveling, was wrecked. Silva's reputedly greatest works were lost: all twelve of his Cuentos negros ("Black Stories"), the Cuentos de razas ("Stories of Races"), meditations, criticism, and poetry, which he had divided into Sitios ("Places"), Versos para ella ("Poems for Her"), Para los niños ("For the Children"), and Psicopatología ("Psychopathology") (Camacho Guizado, 310). Also, a treatise he had written on will and energy in a letter to Paul Bourget was gone forever. He also lost novels, including Ensayo sobre la perfumería ("Essay on Perfumery") and De sobremesa.

Shortly after, Silva, distraught beyond imagining at his losses, wrote "Lázaro," a poem in which the resurrected Lazarus weeps inconsolably, envying the dead. The poem gives us insight into his state of mind during this would-be recovery. At his friends' urging he feverishly reconstructed one of the lost writings, De sobremesa, which he had been writing and expanding since 1887, possibly having already decided his fate as he wrote. His friends would be divided as to the work's merits. With his financial situation perilous, he visited his doctor friend Juan Evangelista Manrique days later and asked him to draw the exact outline on his chest of where the human heart is located. His friends met at night at his house. In a sobremesa (a lingering after-dinner gathering for conversation) that evening, he scoffed at the notion that he would ever kill himself. They disbanded around midnight. Sometime in the small hours of 24 May 1896, he shot himself once through the heart with a rusty revolver. Arias Argáez found Silva completely lifeless, the hurriedly rewritten manuscript of his only novel on his desk like a protracted suicide note for those who would read it as one. The next day's newspaper in Bogotá related the death laconically, noting that Silva "apparently wrote poetry" (Serrano Camargo, 213-214). On 1 June, Pedro Emilio Coll would write in El Cojo Ilustrado, a principal organ of Modernist sensibility:

In Bogotá, the city of melancholy convents and austere stone temples, José Asunción Silva, the misanthropic dandy, after having laughed at a worldly party, has committed suicide in his room full of books, bottles of scent and rare orchids.

[1 June 1896]

Silva was buried in unhallowed ground set apart for suicides. Another indignity would follow in 1907 with the publication in Colombia of Lorenzo Marroquín and José María Rivas Groot's scandalous novel, Pax. In it appears a character, the poet "S. C. Mata" (pronounced ese se mata—"that one kills himself"), some of whose poems are unflattering, veiled satires of Silva's nocturnes, allegedly revenge for a slight Silva had made of Marroquín in a newspaper crónica.

Like a Borgesian catalogue of imaginary works, Silva's legacy upon his death became hypothetical, full of unrealized potential, thus mythifying him. Several theories about his death have been put forward in the ensuing years, some more outlandish than reasonable. Sanín Cano catalogues and dismisses them: The first legend, supported by a roman à clef reading of the passages in the novel that depict the ravages of despair and horror vacui on the antihero, runs that Silva feared he was going insane (Silva, Obra completa, 97). Sanín Cano claims the scenes in question were written back in 1892, when Silva received word of Maupassant's insanity. A second legend claims the insularity of a mediocre environment led its denizens, jealous of Silva's superiority, to spread the word that he was mad, which amounted to character assassination in that milieu; Sanín Cano dismisses this (99) as strange and unfounded, since in his view Silva was the very picture of mental balance. Probably the most famous explanation—and correspondingly, perhaps, the most "romantic" one, in Sanín Cano's phrase—has Silva stretched out, like the painting of the stylized, lifeless Chatterton in his garret, we might say, and with Gabriele D'Annunzio's Il trionfo della morte ("The Triumph of Death") open on the bedside table. Many began to view D'Annunzio's novel with superstitious horror, and as a causal agent of the death. On close inspection Maurice Barrès's Trois stations de psychothérapie and an issue of Cosmopolis, a trilingual journal in which Silva was researching Leonardo, appear also. Silva's friend likewise rejects this complicity: It would be beneath the poet to be swayed in fundamental beliefs by readings.

Countryman Guillermo Valencia was to write a paean to Silva, who would "sacrifice a world to polish a verse"; the long poem culminates in a plea for forgiveness for the poet's self-annihilation. In recent years, no resolution to the controversy has been forthcoming; in fact, apologist Santos Molano published a massive tome, Corazón del poeta ("The Poet's Heart"), speculating that Silva's burgeoning debts, both inherited and contracted, had more to do with his death than meets the eye.

De sobremesa (1887-1896)—the full title of Silva's novel—was not published until 1925, by Cromos in Bogotá, the year after José Eustasio Rivera's regionalist novel La vorágine ("The Vortex") and three years after César Vallejo's radically innovative volume of poetry, Trilce. Silva's book would not make an impression. An irony of literary history: A work can be more out of date thirty years after its conception than one hundred.


The approximate dates of Spanish American modernismo—which should not be confused with Brazilian Modernismo or Anglo-American Modernism—are from 1882, the appearance of José Martí's Ismaelillo, to just after World War I, circa 1917, when the avant-garde "isms"—Futurism, Creationism, Cubism, Ultraism—came into vogue. It was, simply put, a sensibility in Spanish America and Spain that held dear the autonomy of art and the cult of form, and practiced an aggressive cosmopolitanism.

José Asunción Silva is frequently considered among the major figures of modernismo, a movement of revolutionary pedigree but whose demise left its aesthetics distinctly passé, its repertoire of swans and fleurs-de-lis exhausted by countless imitators of Rubén Darío (1867-1916), the Nicaraguan innovator who "translated" the Spanish language into forms that had been more properly the domain of the French. Darío was accepted among writers of the time as an inspired master of the New World and scion of the Old, and set the agenda for modernista sensibilities. Silva, too, had caught the admiring attention of Spanish writers such as Miguel de Unamuno. The Colombian's poetry was highly influenced by Bécquer, Heine, and Hugo. His "Nocturno" is an apparently formless but exquisitely wrought masterpiece of assonant rhymes in verse that are multiples of four; it is instantly recognizable anywhere there is a Spanish-speaking poetic tradition, and was hailed (and reviled) at the time for its innovations:

Una noche,
Una noche toda llena de murmullos, de perfumes
y de músicas de alas . . .


One night,
A night full of whispers, of perfumes
and of wing-songs . . .

The modernistas were a highly diverse group. Any list of the indispensable members would have to include Rubén Darío, first and foremost; also José Martí (1853-1895), the Cuban patriot, essayist, poet, and translator; Silva; and the tubercular Julián del Casal (1863-1893). Also in the first generation is included the Mexican Manuel Gutiérrez Nájera, who wrote verse, short stories, and important essays on art and materialism. Key writers in the epoch emerged: Julio Herrera y Reissig (1875-1910); Amado Nervo (1870-1919), a deeply spiritual writer who has wide popular appeal even today; Delmira Agustini (1886-1914); Salvador Díaz Mirón (1853-1928); Ricardo Jaimes Freyre (1868-1933); and Leopoldo Lugones (1874-1938), though the latter developed into a vital link between modernista aesthetics and the vanguard that was to come. The Peruvian José Santos Chocano (1875-1934) was important in the mundonovista ("new-world-ist") phase of modernismo, in which simplicity and the autochthonous prevailed over Europeanized, self-consciously "artistic" values.

Silva's age, following Parnassianism's prizing of musicality, sought the precious, the recherché, the exotic, and the strange, and Silva's work is virtually a compendium of modernista strategies and concerns. Though deeply influenced by Parnassianism and the first "moderns," such as Charles Baudelaire and Paul Verlaine, modernismo was the first manifestation of a uniquely Spanish American literature, fulfilling the goal on the one hand to join universal literature and on the other to descastizar, or "de-Castilianize" its letters, exactly when Spain was losing its last colonies. The movement is known largely for its poetry, though its prose displayed many of the same traits. The literary current's basic outlines could be said to include many of the following articles of faith: (a) a preoccupation with the marginalized status of the writer and his or her fall from legislator to "non-producer"; at the same time, a recognition of the writer's interpretative role in the universe—the artist as shaman, magus, bard, artisan of the verbal object; (b) disdain for the acquisitiveness of the philistine classes and all that was admired by bourgeois values: the mass-marketed, accessible, emotionally dishonest, crass, commercial productions ruled by the judgments of the class Baudelaire called the "mediocracy"; (c) art as a new source of faith; (d) language as incantatory, orphic, and the means to transgressing, transcending, and creating a "double" of the universe; (e) formal refinement and innovation; (f) an aspiration toward beauty, understood in a Platonic sense; (g) a cultivation of the vague and suggestive over the concrete, highlighting mystery, uncertainty, pessimism, and ephemerality; and (h) the awareness of Latin America as a presence emerging from exotic "Other" to exploited source of resources and victim of the foreign policies and cultural hegemony of colonial aggressors. This last point may help inoculate the newcomer to this literature against the long-standing critical misconception that modernismo was somehow "apolitical" or torredemarfilista ("ivory-tower-ist" or "elitist"). Especially in its latter or "heroic" phase, modernismo was committed to the dynamics of the real world." Indeed, societal concerns mattered; note Aníbal González's point that

Silva believed that entropy was eroding history and society; "progress" was an illusion, world history appeared to be returning to its chaotic origins, and it was difficult to see the direction society would take in the future. ["Modernist Prose," 103]

In some ways, the modernista, like the Decadent, often sought in interiority a wealth of impressions to shield him from the anarchistic realities of the time. It is a mistake, though, as we suggested, to assume he was disengaged from them. Some modernistas' Pythagorean erotics, for example, may on the surface seem an escapist dodge, but in reality such pursuits can and should be seen as counter-ideals in a world of ever more threatening, and desacralizing, mercantilism.

Then, as now, there was great pressure to be "modern," against the pull of tradition and the pride of cultural heritage. Modernismo finally gave way just as globalization, modern cities and city life, and capitalization and its discontents brought with them new forms of writing and of conceiving the world. It was above all a nondogmatic current, as Gómez Gil indicates (405), and thus we should be careful not to call modernismo a movement so much as a "moment" or "consciousness," one of great ambiguity about the role of art and the cult of change now holding sway, and one that was heterodox in its many approaches to art.


As a novel of exile, or travel novel, After-Dinner Conversation invokes the libertinism and moral freethinking that were set against a narrow Victorian ethos and the old religious order. Paris would be the screen on which countless Latin American writers would project their fantasies, making of the city a siren, a utopia for frustrated dreams at home. It is also a site of ambiguity. Marcy Schwartz notes that "depictions of Paris vacillate between images of orgiastic decadence and ennobling tradition" (11). She suggests that modernista-era writing expands the aura of prestige around Paris, developed by Domingo Faustino Sarmiento, to include the sensual and sexual. In Ventura García Calderon's view, Paris is an "Athens that would be Cythera11 . . . and sometimes Lesbos"—that is, the classical, the mystic, and the erotic (Schwartz, 14). Paris becomes, by antonomasia, the extramoral, the supermundane, at least in thought; witness Rubén Darío's famous "my wife is from my country; my lover, from Paris" (Schwartz, 17), voicing the double and divergent arc that the real and the dreamed would trace for so many Latin Americans who had the means at the turn of the century to journey there. Julián del Casal, for instance, loathed the "bourgeois Paris" but loved the "rare, exotic, refined, sensitive, brilliant and artificial Paris," the Paris unsuspected by foreigners, the "theosophical, magic, satanic and occultist" Paris (Franco, 25). For Silva, the city shares the elusiveness of Helen herself, the ideal, but also a disassociated and destructive life, home of the artificial paradises that would lead to disease and disenchantment. The urban space allows a "dense cartography of . . . autonomous behavior" as set against the affectation and small-mindedness of the provinces (Moreno-Durán, 50). In Silva we can see revealed what Schwartz perceives as Paris's inevitable move from "an aesthetic of pleasure and luxury toward a revelation of urban modernity's high cost" (Schwartz, 20). Paris is, of course, an ideal vantage from which to criticize the aspirations of certain classes then in formation, and the novel thus continues the centuries of dialogue between and about the "old" and "new" worlds and their identity formation. Silva, though, invokes little of the physical, historical Paris, an absence that seems to give credence to the idea of Paris as a topos or theater for certain values to play out—Paris as the spirit, in other words, of what could not be found in the provincial Bogotá of the times. Silva's Fernández takes the idealization of the city even further, voicing his desire (20 June) in a Faustian rumination to see the city of lights refined even further: "[I dream] of a larger, more beautiful Paris, one richer, more perverse, wiser, more sensual, and more mystic" (41). In many respects, then, After-Dinner Conversation is a novel of ideas, and Paris plays a key role in the construction of its imaginary, rewriting Europe as the pole from which the Utopia of the Americas is (re)constructed. Importantly, Fernández's diary is read in Latin America.

Genre, Form, and Language

After-Dinner Conversation is a hybrid—part disquisition, part memoir, part modernista manifesto—written at a time when mixing genres still provoked resistance in certain quarters. In large measure, too, it is a nervous, frantic prose poem, unmistakably modern and full of flights both lyrical and cantankerous. Interludes appear of what we might call "pure prose" (after poesía pura), language that serves only the aesthetic end. The reader may find something of the love note, the séance, the Greek dialogue, prayer, the religious confession, pamphleteering and speechifying, and doses of parody and pastiche. As a general point of departure, though, it might be useful to term it an early example of the psychological novel, in which external events are subordinated to the inner life of the protagonist. Orjuela notes the forsaking of Romantic realism and an orientation toward a French tendency: to study decadents, neurotics, and maladroits (De sobremesa, 16-17). The work is, as critics such as Gómez Ocampo have shown, "essayistic," discoursing ("digressing") on art, love, philosophy, and medicine. As Rafael Gutiérrez Girardot explains in his introduction to the Biblioteca Familiar Colombiana edition, After-Dinner Conversation is a marriage of the "sentimental journey" and the "artist novel" (3). Nuancing further, he notes that the Spanish language had lacked these traditions, and that the only diary novels until this novel's appearance belonged to one of the two loose categorizations of diary, anecdotal, whereas Silva's novel partakes of the "reflexivo," roughly the intimate or journal intime. In truth, After-Dinner Conversation shows elements of both, although the protagonist's (or "agonist's," to borrow Miguel de Unamuno's term for his own characters) state of mind is chronicled more rigorously than the events surrounding it. While the artist novel, or Künstlerroman, traditionally shows the development of an artist from childhood, the novel at hand depicts not so much a becoming as the crisis, entropy, or inertia of an age and of a man. The tradition of confessional literature, both as a form and in examples—Augustine, Rousseau, De Quincey's Confessions of an English Opium Eater, Rilke's account of an impressionable aristocrat living an anxious Bohemian life in Paris, The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge, Maurice Barrè's The Cult of the Self (also known as The Cult of the Ego), Edmond de Goncourt's The Goncourt Journals 1851-70, James Hogg's The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner, Musset's Confesion d'un enfant du siècle (which Fernández echoes consciously in calling himself a "child of the century"), George Moore's Confessions of a Young Man, and of course Goethe's Sorrows of Young Werther—certainly find continuity as well in Silva's work. Not only sin but insanity was in vogue: for example, Memoirs of My Nervous Illness (1903), a schizophrenic's by turns lucid and raving account of reality, a work that allows glimpses into the workings of the modern mind. Another fictional exploration in diary form is the philanderer's memoir, Sören Kierkegaard's "Diary of a Seducer" (from Either/Or, v. I, 1843), the meticulous recollections of an "eroticist's" conquest, the record of which, like the impressions in Fernández's diary, seems to be the goal and justification of the hero's manipulative arts.15 Coetaneous diaries also include Grossman's Diary of a Nobody (1894), Constant's Journal Intime (1887-1889), and the discursive "installments" of Oliver Wendell Holmes's The Autocrat of the Breakfast-Table (1857), which are a structural analogue to Silva's novella. Orjuela (José Asunción Silva, 26) adds Amiel's diary as a widely read book at the time. Also, the Russian tradition was internationally in full force: Dostoevsky's Diary of a Writer and Notes from the Underground, Gogol's Diary of a Madman, and Turgenev's Diary of a Superfluous Man. After-Dinner Conversation often is invoked with other Spanish-American modernista works that explore the artistic temperament, such as Eugenio Cambaceres's Sin rumbo ("Directionless," 1885); José Martí's novel, Amistad funesta ("Ill-Fated Friendship," also known as Lucía Jerez, 1885); Manuel Díaz Rodríguez's Confidencias de Psiquis ("Confidences of Psyche," 1897), Idolos rotos ("Broken Idols," 1901), and Sangre patricia ("Patrician Blood" or "Blue Blood," 1902); and Pedro César Dominici's El triunfo del ideal ("The Triumph of the Ideal," 1901). In Spain we have the examples of Azorín's Diario de un enfermo ("Diary of a Sick Man," 1901) and Ramón del Valle-Inclán's four Sonatas (1902-1905), the memoirs of the Marquis de Bradomín. The "voice" behind Fernández's diary, of course, is that of Russian diarist and painter, Marie Bashkirtseff (1860-1884), who appears in the novel as both a "character"—a heroine to Fernández—and a historical personage. Bashkirtseff's diary (1887) is one of the most revealing of the late nineteenth century, and offers clear affinities with Silva's novel in style, thematics, and sensibility.

As a "frame" novel (Rahmenerzählung), circularity organizes Silva's work, and emphasizes the futility of the search. Wanting Helen, Fernández attains only her representation, the portrait, her "relics," and the "verbal portrait" of her in the diary itself; wanting cosmopolitan stimulation, he winds up back in the unnamed South American provincial capital. Note that the novel tautologically opens and closes with the words "secluded" and "fairy tale," underscoring the literaturization of experience, experience captured for the sake of literature, akin to Marie Bashkirtseff's self-conscious discovery: "I am the most interesting book of all." In considering the narrator's reliability in such a text, it should be remembered that, although we have no indication how it is read, the diary itself—what we are basically reading when we read the novel—in the interdiagetic plane is a kind of artistic performance as much as a confession, a texto público ("public text") in Trigo's phrase (139). This observation raises the question: to what extent does Fernández's diary represent his "true" psychology, i.e., to what extent does it represent something revealed, something transparent, and to what extent the deliberate posturings of a self-conscious polemicist? Diaries, like letters, were formerly written with third-party recipients in mind. In short, we must consider to what extent we are witnessing the theatrics (rhetoric) of reading and to what extent a transformative act of "sorcery" (Trigo's word; see his discussion of memory and reading in this connection, 114-115). The very title of the novel points to the spoken—the oral tradition.

Critics have been anxious to focus on After-Dinner Conversation's apparent eluding of genre; indeed, until the 1960s and even afterward, they compulsively argued over whether or not it even qualified as a novel, and many dismissed it out of hand, feeling it was unworthy of the great poet. Edgar O'Hara called it a divagación ("rambling") (221). Sanín Cano, a close friend and contertulio, or fellow man of letters, was an early detractor, calling it defective in construction and arbitrary and subjective in its judgments, as if it were an essay (Maya, 81). A disjointed, disarticulated body is an apt metaphor for a novel in which the dissembling body plays such an important role. And yet this nonlinearity is the very protocol of conversation, of "table talk," and of the diary form. The flux of experience replaces the old teleology of the novel, which made of life and character an almost scientific coherence. After-Dinner Conversation shares what Robert Heilman calls the "catharsis of rascality," to wit, the "secret inclination to discontinuity, to hit-and-run raids on life, the impulse to shun the long and exacting unity, to instead live by episodes" (Wicks, 44). Further:

A fiction in the romance mode offers a word-world construct in which harmony, integration, and perfection prevail: dreamlike wish fulfillment. The picaresque mode offers a word-world construct in which disharmony, disintegration and chaos prevail: nightmarish anxiety. [45; emphasis mine]

We can see where the antiheroes of the two genres converge: the Decadent owes much to the picaresque tradition in form, worldview, and sociology. As Porter sees it, "As a negative version of the picaresque (one that ends in the protagonist's degeneration instead of success), the episodic structure of the decadent novel reflects a frustrated quest for a bad goal" (94).

Decadence, the Dandy, and Neurosis

Decadent precedents are everywhere advertised in the novel—from Baudelaire to Moreau. Silva's Fernández belongs to the lineage of this character type: Pater's Marius (Marius the Epicurian, 1885), D'Annunzio's Andrea Sperelli (The Child of Pleasure, 1889), Huysman's Des Esseintes (Against the Grain, also known as Against Nature, 1890), Villiers de l'Isle-Adam's Axel (Axel, 1890), and Wilde's Dorian Gray (The Picture of Dorian Gray, 1891). Lorrain's Phocas (Monsieur de Phocas) would appear in 1901. There are, too, untold precursors of a modern, neurotic, divided self, the essence of the decadent: Don Quixote, Hamlet, Dr. Jeckyll and Mr. Hyde, Don Juan, Faust, Werther.

The discourses of modernity, disease, and morality seem to converge in the style, topics, and values of Decadence. The very root of the word implies a declining, a fading, an exhaustion, and a failing. Arthur Symons, who famously set forth the principles of the Symbolist movement in art, notes that Decadence is "really a new and beautiful disease . . . a moral perversity . . . an unreason of the soul" (Beckson, 135-137). Let us take a cursory glance at some of the tenets of Decadence, and hold them up against the example of the novel. I will argue that Fernández is largely, but not archetypically, Decadent.

The first of these principles we will consider is style. Decadent style is monotonously artificial, introspective, contradictory, riotous, and boundless in referentiality and imagination. The Decadent searches out the rare word that has the feel of an arcane curiosity plucked from an alien context. In Decadent prose we typically are assailed with long catalogues of artistic and cultural heroes, Byzantine passages adorned with every artifice, fixations on every detail, details which threaten to engulf the whole (indeed, disproportion is primary to the Decadent's art). In Paul Bourget's words:

A decadent style is one in which the unity of the book is disarticulated to leave room for the unity of the page; in which the page is decomposed to make way for the autonomy of the phrase, and the phrase to give free reign to the rebelliousness of the word. [Maya, 77]

Bourget also stresses extreme individualism in Decadent style, that is to say, a license for the breakdown of traditional unities and conventions. Porter notes (102) the paramount use of digression. This technique can bring the fabula to a halt at every turn, while the récit, to use the Formalist terms, rambles endlessly into non sequiturs, plotlessness, or the use of outrageously contrived coincidences and correspondences. This feature is vital: For what seems like the first time, the writer refuses to satisfy public demand for continuity and closure, which helps explain the initially adverse reception of Silva's novel and the importance of the mode to later "postmodern" experiments. Porter further notes the use of "rare and precious objects (unavailable to and unappreciated by ordinary people) harmoniously arranged in luxurious interiors" (102). That is, even if the Decadent was a social outcast or his claim to nobility was growing remote, which was often the case, the material realm—plants, gems, heraldic symbols, art, delicacies of the table—was available to him through art, through mimesis. Lasowski perceptively captures the image of the word in this type of text thus: "word is bibelot" (Watson, 137). And finally Hanson observes a "tendency to vague and mystical language, a longing to wring from words an enigmatic symbolism or a perverse irony" (2). Consider in this light Fernández's preoccupation with the "manibus date lilia plenis . . ." invocation throughout the novel.

Second, let us take note of the overriding valorization of artificiality. With respect to the natural, when Fernández notes that "the sublime has fled the earth" (1 September), he is explicitly overturning the Romantic conception of nature, of the presence of the Infinite in the sublunary realm. For some critics, the Decadents' paradoxical acceptance of Rousseau (nature is good, civilization is bad), while enjoying the foul fruits of the latter, characterizes their reading of the Romantics (Weir, 4). The Decadent shuns nature as incomplete, too democratic and common. We see evidence of this embracing of the unnatural in Fernández's dismissal of the fledgling tourist industry and its masses; his descriptions of the European tourist "engaging" nature are nothing if not comic grotesques. On the other hand, Fernández does relate some sublime moments in nature (note the lovely Niagara Falls rumination), but he cannot resist interspersing them with a diatribe on the profanation represented by the railroad and the anticipated hordes it would bring. He also finds solace in nature, for example in his hideout. However, these are very atypical scenes for a true Decadent novel; here Silva seems still under the spell of Romantic countryman Jorge Isaacs.

We might also, in this vein, point to the Decadent's frivolity, his embracing of the in-itself, or the object extraneous to bourgeois functionality. Baudrillard's Simulacra and Simulation lays out four successive stages of the image, of which the fourth we might say typifies the Decadent interior:

it [the image] is the reflection of a profound reality;
it masks and denatures a profound reality;
it masks the absence of a profound reality;
it has no relation to any reality whatsoever; it is its own pure [simulacrum]. [Watson, 183]

In the Decadent we typically see a perverse reveling in the breakdown of society accompanied by a yearning for pre-modernity, an irreligious religiosity, even as the new religion of science holds sway over its adepts. Perhaps the ancient and the modern are reconciled in a kind of transitional Utopian vision of the future in which technology serves some enlightened material ends. Fernández's long delirious prophesy (10 July entry)—which significantly is but one more of his pipe dreams—obeys the exigencies of what Poggioli calls "the task of Decadence," which consists first of "'a denial of culture' (or the assertion of an entropic culture's ruin), and secondly, in a kind of re-cultivation of—or from—such ruins [into] 'a culture of negations, a flower of both evil and ill'" (cited in St. John, 212). In other words, a regeneration of sorts derives from a degeneration.

Next we come to hypersensitivity. The Decadent has an almost fetishistic predilection for intense sensory experience, especially the novel or perverse, a feeling that Art has replaced Ethics, and a conviction that the outside world is but a pretext for the work of art (Mallarmé's "tout au monde existe pour aboutir à un livre"—everything in the world exists to result in a book); indeed, these beliefs are reflected formally in the use of transpositions d'art, so overwhelming in Silva both of existent works and of notional ones. Drugs, too, and their attendant altered states are part of the Decadent arsenal in that they are deliberate exacerbations of sense. Walter Pater provides the watchword: "Not the fruit of experience, but experience itself, is the end" (Beckson, 289). Readers of Huysmans, for instance, will recall the synaesthetic "mouth-organ" of liqueurs with which Des Esseintes mixes sound and taste to heighten experience, to produce new flights of harmony. These indulgences depend on a cultivation of a voluptuous distance from the world: seclusion. The Decadent's solitude is a kind of quarantine, an aristocratic convalescence. Correspondingly, action in the world is a problem. The Decadent's hypersensitivity nevertheless allows for the coexistence in him of an ironic distance that makes him capable of detachment from his own acts of cruelty or callousness, or rather, an amorality born of scorn for common morals. Note how Fernández praises the anarchist not for the ends of his actions, but because he acts. The impressionable exile's conquests are nevertheless Machiavellian, and occur in controlled climates—hothouses, boudoirs, galas. They also occur on morally ambiguous grounds: the Decadent hero's overtures to woman—so intense, unconnected, and contradictory—often confuse the reader as to their sincerity. Moral corruption, however, is seen as the privilege of aesthetic superiority, a feeling of what one critic calls "spilt aristocracy" (Porter, 99). Fernández diverges from the model in that he does not scorn travel as redundant to art; he is too robust to be a complete Decadent, but too Decadent for concerted action. Meyer-Minnemann calls him part of the "heroic phase" (73) of Decadentism. An objection to this contention may rest on the fact that all Fernández's vitality is squandered; the diary is proof of failures of action.

Tied to the hypersensitive and hyperaesthetic is a fascination in Decadence with psychopathology. Fernández is both a reader of works on personality disorder and a victim of them. He is susceptible to nervous illness, as proof of passage into this "elite," illness being a mark of distinction in the logic of the turn-of-the-century aesthete. And there is a tendency to attempt to trace degeneration of lineage in Decadent works; note how Fernández attributes his animal nature to the "atavism" of the Andrades—particularly his sexual predation and eroticism. William James's chapter "The Divided Self" may serve virtually as the profile of Fernández, whose decadence takes the form of an atomization of personality, a schizoid state:

A 'dégénéré supérieur' is simply a man of sensibility in many directions, who finds more difficulty than is common in keeping his spiritual house in order and running his furrow straight, because his feelings and impulses are too keen and too discrepant mutually. In the haunting and insistent ideas, in the irrational impulses, the morbid scruples, dreads, and inhibitions which beset the psychopathic temperament when it is thoroughly pronounced, we have exquisite examples of heterogenous personality. [169]

Though ill, Fernández does not embody the "typical" emasculated Decadent hero: he is far closer to the Romantic physically, but is "typically" modern in his dividedness. Edmond de Goncourt diagnoses the maladies of the type based on bodily manifestations, to wit, arising from:

individual or collective pathological disturbances . . . : the decline of nations exhausted by the senility of civilization; the physical instability caused by the ever more artificial conditions of modern life; and the exacerbation of their nervous sensibilities that led artists to live in a state of mental erethism; an atrophy of the will eventually resulting in the triumph of uncontrolled association of ideas and anarchic reverie. And . . . most decadent heroes are clearly abulic in character, unable to make any decision, gnawed by doubt, living wholly isolated from society. [Weir, 84]

Indeed in the Decadent period there was an apocalyptic sense of time; the Decadent hero is that ironic figure who meets the contradictions of modernity and the "deliquescence" (to use a favorite word of the time) of values with a spectacular surrender into that decomposition.

Opening and Closing Scenes

The parallel scenes that frame the work invite reflection on After-Dinner Conversation's valuing of inner spaces, and the bricolage of private composition—the home as a work of art, the self at its center:


Secluded by the shade of gauze and lace, the warm light of the lamp fell in a circle over the crimson velvet of the tablecloth, and as it lit up the three china cups, which were golden in the bottom from the traces of thick coffee, and a cut-crystal bottle full of transparent liqueur shining with gold particles, it left the rest of the large and silent chamber awash in a gloomy purple semidarkness, the effect of the cast of the carpet, the tapestries, and the wall hangings.


The crimson semidarkness of the room grew drowsy. The tenuous smoke from the Oriental cigarette curled in subtle spirals in the circle of lamplight, dimmed by the old lace lampshade. The fragile china cups were whitened against the blood-red velvet of the rug, and in the bottom of the cut-crystal bottle, amidst the transparency of the Goldwasser, the gold-leaf particles stirred, dancing all in a luminous ring, as fantastic as a fairy tale.

The novel begins with the word recogida ("secluded"), which connotes "enclosed," "withdrawn," and ends with cuento de hadas ("fairy tale"), creating a frame for the hermetic fictionality and self-consciousness of the scene. Two of many shrine-like spaces in the book (the cemetery, the studio, boudoirs, etc.), the first and last scenes seem almost to etherealize themselves into fantasy, leaving the diary—and Helen—as the reality. Silva invites us into the novel with a chiaroscuro effect, highlighting what we might call a "visual epicurianism." Like the Impressionists' enlightened attention to everyday objects such as food, the use of light here (1) works as a narcotic and (2) heightens the transitory perception of objects, especially the décor—its ensemble effect but also its miniaturist detail. In this case we are clearly in the modernista interior: sensual, precious, refined, crepuscular, cosmopolitan, deliberate, disparate. Note too the use of dream-effects and private space that literalizes Aestheticist ideal images such as Walter Pater's "House Beautiful," and anticipates such famous metaphysical sanctuaries of harmonic thought as those painted in José Enrique Rodó's Ariel (1900). We are presented with a similar scene in the opening to Silva's recently recovered short story, "De sobremesa," in which the privileged male spaces of both action and contemplation are clearly drawn:

We had hunted all day. A true hunting party through cultivated fields, leafless vineyards, the fox at our heels and the dog behind the fox; shotgun at the ready, amidst a cloud of partridges that suddenly rises, and warrens of scampering hares; the true exhausting hunt, in which all one's sorrows, all one's worries are forgotten, and for which one is as passionate as for a game of baccarat. After dinner—one of those dinners with only men in attendance—in which there is hard drinking, the putting of elbows on the tablecloths amidst heated arguments through cigarette and pipe smoke, the subtle aroma of coffee and the strong emanations of alcohol, Pedro de Entreves began talking about all that was inexplicable that arose in life, of the marvelous, the hidden, with which we have such frequent brushes, of the mysteries in which we are made anxious as if in a lake of dark shadows, of the sickly attraction that mystical journeys to the beyond hold for restless spirits, of the accursed sciences, of colloquies with the invisible, and in these times of unbelief, of calculated or brutal debunkings, which have given me something akin to a soul from the Middle Ages. [from Cuentos negros]

For García Márquez, the first scene in the novel is "filmic," a device obviously predating developments in cinematic technique (13). There is a certain "pan" effect in the claustrophobic interior as the details are revealed in their still-life state. Action is replaced by languor. Compare the novel's opening to a setting from a passage in Rachilde, for example, a comparable "simulated reality" (Jullian, 112):

The countess's room was lit by a magnesium lamp which spread jeweled varnish over everything it touched. The walls were hung with apple-green plush, framed in whorls of iridescent mother-of-pearl; from the ceiling, painted in enamel to imitate a cathedral rose-window, the bright light fell like a meteorite. The bed was very low, lacquered . . . , and curtained only by a canopy of gauze studded with Bohemian garnets; the counterpane consisted of three hundred blue points . . .

Behind this scene we sense a painter's palette, in the colors and light particularly. Rendered artificial by juxtaposition, the aesthetic paraphernalia are props, counterpoints to the natural world, where chronology and the elements—the extensions of time and space—oppose them, where movement is banished. In Silva's interiors, Byzantine flourishes obscure all outside space, save the past, which is assembled achronically inside in a kind of cabinet de curiosités, the museum-house. The effect of such a space is to dehistoricize the artifacts, and to constellate around their artificer, the collector or bibeloteur, whose mastery over the natural diachrony and dispersal of things is made plain. The "cult value" of objects, in Walter Benjamin's terms, is superseded by their "exhibition value." The aristocrat's cabinet, moreover, is antidemocratic, an exclusionary space, unlike the museum. Finally, there is a directed chromatism at work; here we have red, white, purple, and gold, colors of heraldry and nobility. Also all the contrasts and indistinctness beloved of the Symbolists, half-lights, silhouettes, dimness, twilights, light on dark and dark objects against light, the sculptural dimensionality of bas-relief in words, all these are bound up in physical settings as constituent parts of mood.28 Language itself takes refuge in the darker tones.

Not only spaces are highlighted in After-Dinner Conversation, but also time. Time in the novel is treated variably as a utilitarian enslavement (witness disaffected Nelly's tirade against the North American concept of it, claiming it exists "for the body"), and as a source of mysterious synchronicity (Fernández's fainting fit at midnight, a response to Helen's fate). The subjectivization of time in the novel, the emplotment of events and their pacing, remain to be studied. Striking proleptic pages leap out at the reader, such as the revelation of the aftermath of the knifing before it happens; little wonder that the novel has been regarded as disjointed by traditionalists. In general what holds sway in After-Dinner Conversation is the time of Decadent fiction, which, as Reed points out, "is not a consequence of sequential acts in a temporal field but a transformation of emotional and psychic energy through the tension created by changing forms of desire" (46). Thus is time in the novel—studiously Bergsonian. Many artists of the age "sought to cancel time by dislocating action to the non-spatial 'place' of the mind" (46). Or as Weir sums up magnificently, "The decadent novelist, in short, occupies his time with style" (12). This is consistent with the idea that time in the novel revolves around excess (Battilana, 35), the hallmark of Decadent style. Battilana notes that the sobremesa itself is a remainder, leftover time to waste.

Secluded by the shade of gauze and lace, the warm light of the lamp fell in a circle over the crimson velvet of the tablecloth, and as it lit up the three china cups, which were golden in the bottom from the traces of thick coffee, and a cut-crystal bottle full of transparent liqueur shining with gold particles, it left the rest of the large and silent chamber awash in a gloomy purple semidarkness, the effect of the cast of the carpet, the tapestries, and the wall hangings.

In the back, dimmed by diminutive shades of reddish gauze, the light from the candlesticks on the piano did battle with the enveloping half-light, while on the open keyboard the brilliant whiteness of its ivory squared off against the dull black of the ebony.

On the redness of the walls, covered with an opaque woolen tapestry, shone the engravings of hilts and the smooth steel blades of crossed swords in a panoply over a shield, and standing out from the dark background of the canvas, bordered by the gold of a Florentine frame, the head of a Flemish burgomaster, copied from Rembrandt, smiled good-naturedly.

The smoke from two cigarettes, the fiery tips of which burned in the darkness, curled in tenuous bluish spirals in the circle of lamplight, and the sweet enervating smell of opiate tobacco from the Orient mingled with that of the Russian leather in which the household furnishings were covered.

A man's hand ran along the velvet tablecloth, struck a match and lit the six candles arrayed in a heavy bronze candelabra beside the lamp. With the brighter light the group that sat in silence came into view: the fine Arabian profile of José Fernández, accentuated by the dull pallor of his complexion and his curly black hair and beard; the Herculean frame and serene features of Juan Rovira, which were rendered very attractive by the contrast between his large eyes with their childlike expression and the gray hair of his thick mustache set against the darkness of his sun-tanned skin; the lean, serious face of Oscar Sáenz, who, with his head sunken in the cushion of the Turkish divan and his body stretched out on it, twisted his pointed blond beard and seemed lost in endless thought.

"Some after-dinner conversation this is! We've been as silent as three corpses for half an hour. This half-light you like, Fernández, feeds the silence and is a narcotic," Juan Rovira burst out as he chose a cigar from the box of open Havanas on the table, near the bottle of Dantziger Goldwasser. "A fine after-dinner conversation for a feast splashed with that Burgundy. I already was feeling some congestion coming on!" With that he began pacing with large steps across the room, his right hand stuck in his vest pocket, drawing from the cigar the first puffs of smoke.

"What do you expect? This is what the poets call 'the silence of close friendship'; also, the fact is that Oscar's ailment has rubbed off on us—the hospital mice have eaten his tongue . . . You haven't joined in three words since you got here. You're tired," he said, speaking to Sáenz, who sat up upon hearing him.

"I, tired? . . . no; I'm a bit worn out. But realize, Juan," he went on, focusing on Rovita his small penetrating eyes, which out of professional habit fixedly observed the speaker's face, as if seeking in it the symptom or expression of a hidden malaise, "realize that I spend the entire week in cold hospital rooms and in bedrooms where so many incurably ill people are suffering; there I see all the anxieties, all the wretchedness of weakness and of human pain in their saddest and most repugnant forms; I breathe in nauseating stenches of filth, decomposition, and death; I don't pay visits to anyone, and on Saturdays I come in here to find the dining room lit a giorno by thirty diaphanous candlesticks and perfumed by the profusion of rare multicolored flowers, moist and fresh, that cover the table and overflow their Murano crystal urns; the dull shine of the old silver dinner service imprinted with the coat of arms of the Fernández de Sotomayor family; the fragile china hand-decorated by famous artists; the tableware that has the appearance of gems; the dainty morsels, the blond aged sherry, the dry Johannisberg Riesling, the Bordeaux and Burgundies that have slept thirty years down in the depths of the wine-cellar; the chilled Russian-style sherbets, the honey-flavored Tokay, all the refinements of those Saturday repasts, and then, in the sumptuous environment of that room, the coffee, aromatic as an essence, the choicest cigars and Egyptian cigarettes that impart their scents to the air. . . . Add to the impression that all those material goods make on me—who am used to seeing dying people—the surplus of physical vigor and the superabundance of that man among men," he said, pointing to Fernández, who smiled triumphantly, "add that to my day-to-day tasks and to the lowly, pedestrian environment in which I live, and you'll understand my silence when I'm here. That's why I keep quiet, and for other reasons too . . ."

"What reasons are those?" inquired Fernández.

"Your love affairs, which we all secretly envy you," Rovira insinuated with a paternal air. "And the unsanitary side has this don Pedro Recio Tirteafuera worried."

"No, the rest is that I've understood how pointless it is to implore you to return to literary work. And for you to devote yourself to a writing worthy of your energy, and that every time I'm here, I'd rather not talk so as not to have to tell you again that it's a crime to have at your disposal all the means that you do, and to let the days, months, and entire years go by without writing a line! Are you resting on your laurels, content with having published two volumes of poetry, one as a child and another seven whole years ago?"

"Does that not seem like much to you, having written books of poems like First Verses and Poems from the Beyond?"

"I don't know about such things, but it seems to me Fernández's verses are worthy," Rovira chimed in, sounding annoyed.

"For anyone else I would think it quite a bit, but for Fernández it's nothing . . . Remember how long ago he wrote them . . . Everything you've done," he went on, turning toward the poet, "all the most perfect aspects of your poems amount to nothing. It's inferior to what we have the right to expect from you, we who know you well, inferior to what you know all too well you can do. And yet, it's been two years since you've produced one line . . . Tell me, do you plan to spend your whole life as you've spent the last months, squandering your abilities in ten opposing directions; exposing yourself to the vagaries of war for the sake of defending a cause you don't believe in, as you did in July when you fought under Monteverde's orders; promoting political rallies to rile up your countrymen, at whom you laugh; cultivating rare flowers in the greenhouse; seducing hysterics dressed by Worth;6 studying Arabic and undertaking dangerous jaunts to the most unfamiliar, unhealthy regions in our territory in order to further your studies of prehistory and anthropology? Let me lecture you, since I have held my tongue for so long. In your frenzy to widen the field of your life experiences, in your zeal to simultaneously develop the many faculties with which nature has endowed you, you are steadily losing sight of the place where you are headed. The look of your desk yesterday morning would lead one who did not know you as well as I do to think you suffer the onset of incoherence. On your worktable there was an ancient majolica vase filled with monstrous orchids; a copy of Tibullus handled by six generations, and which held amidst its yellowed pages the translation you've been working on; the final book by some English poet or other; your dispatch from the General, sent by the Ministry of War; some mineral samples from the Rio Moro mines, the analysis of which worried you; a perfumed cambric handkerchief that you doubtless snatched away the previous night at the Santamaría ball from the most aristocratic of your conquests; your Anglo-American Bank checkbook, and presiding over that motley assemblage, the Quechuan idol that you hauled out of the floor of an Indian temple on your last outing, and a little Greek statue in white marble. Sitting at your desk, already whiplashed by a cold shower and exhilarated by three cups of tea, you would begin your day. You had already written a perverse musical stanza intended probably for one of your victims; from what you told me, you had already drawn three checks to cover the week's expenses; phoned to give orders to the Villa Helena architect; begun a lab test on the Rio Moro minerals; you had already read ten pages of a monograph on the Aztec race, and while they were saddling the most spirited of the horses, you kept yourself occupied by studying a battle plan. My God! If there is a man capable of coordinating all that, that man, dedicated to a single thing, would be monstrously great. But no, that's outside the realm of the human . . . You will dissipate yourself in vain. Not only will you spread yourself thin, but those ten paths you wish to follow all at once, will come together on you, into a single one."

"One that leads to the madhouse?" Fernández asked, smiling disdainfully. "Don't be too sure of yourself . . . I thought that at one time. Today I don't."

"Well, suppose that's not the case," Sáenz continued, unflappable. "Suppose for the sake of argument that your iron-clad organization stands up to the tests you put it to, and tell me, do you really think, in good faith, that even if you live a hundred years you'll manage to satisfy the millions of curiosities you carry around inside you every minute, to unleash them over the earth like a pack of hungry dogs, on the prowl for new sensations? . . . And to persist with such acts of folly you toss aside the best you have in you, your deep-rooted calling, your soul of a poet? . . . How many verses have you written this year?"

"Verses . . . not a one . . . I was planning to write a poem that perhaps might have been better than the others; I didn't start it, I probably never will . . . I'll never write another verse . . . I'm not a poet . . ."

An exclamation from the two friends prevented him from finishing the sentence.

"No, I'm not a poet," he said with an air of profound conviction. "That's ridiculous. I, a poet! To call me by the same name men have called Aeschylus, Homer, Dante, Shakespeare, Shelley . . . What a profanation, what a blunder! What led me to write my verses was the fact that reading the great poets stirred such profound emotions in me, as all my emotions are, and that those emotions long endured in my spirit and were imbued with my sensibility, and they became stanzas. One does not make verses; verses make themselves within one, and issue forth. The one who can harbor the fewest illusions about the artistic worth of my work is I myself, who know the secret of their origin . . . Do you want to know it? I spent a few months with my imagination in the Greece of Pericles, I felt the noble, healthy beauty of the Hellenic art and with all the ardor of my twenty years and under those impressions I wrote the "Pagan Poems"; from a rainy fall afternoon spent in the countryside reading Leopardi and Antero de Quental came the sonnet sequence I later called "The Dead Souls"; in "Diaphanous Days" any intelligent reader can detect the influence of the sixteenth-century Spanish mystics, and my masterpiece, the "Poems of the Flesh" that form part of the "Songs from the Beyond" that have won me the admiration of the penny-ante critics and five or six ridiculous imitators—what else are they but a mediocre attempt to convey in our language the sickly sensations and complicated sentiments that in perfect forms Baudelaire and Rossetti, Verlaine and Swinburne already expressed in their own? . . . No, my God, I'm not a poet . . . I dreamt before and I still dream of mastering form, of forging stanzas that suggest a thousand obscure things I feel seething within me and that perhaps would be worth saying, but I cannot devote myself to that. . . ."

"After listening to you I understand why Máximo Pérez says that the critic in you kills off the poet . . . that your analytical faculties are superior to your creative powers," said Sáenz.

"Could be, I'm the one least in a position to say," Fernández went on. "Poet, maybe, that's the label that stuck. In the public's mind you have to be something. The herd puts names on things in order to speak of them and sticks labels on people in order to classify them. Afterward the man undergoes a sea-change but the label remains. I published a volume of bad verse at age twenty and it sold well; another of average verse at twenty-eight and it didn't sell at all. They called me poet since the first, after the second I haven't written another line and I've practiced nine different professions, and in spite of that I still have the label stuck on me, like a bottle that when opened in the drugstore contained myrrh, and that later, full of Spanish fly, linseed, or opium, says balsamic gum on the outside. Poet! But, see, no, it's not my analytic faculties, which Pérez overstates, that are the secret source of the unfruitfulness you accuse me of; you're well aware of what is: the fact is, just as poetry fascinates and attracts me, so too does everything fascinate and attract me, irresistibly; all the arts, all the sciences, politics, speculation, luxury, pleasures, mysticism, love, war, all life forms, material life itself, the very sensations that my senses demand be ever more intense and exquisite . . . What do you expect—with all those ambitions can a body set to chiseling sonnets? Under those conditions a fellow's not in his right mind."

"Especially when he wears a mask—as you do—of perfect worldly uprightness, when he isolates himself as you live isolated among the treasures of art and the lavish creature comforts of a house like this, and only interacts with a dozen loons like us, your friends; with the exception of Rovira, the others serve to isolate you from real life . . ."

"Real life? . . . But what is real life, tell me, the emotionless bourgeois life, the one devoid of curiosity? . . . It's true there are only ten close friends who understand me and whom I understand, and a few departed souls in whose circle I keep constant company . . . The rest are skin-deep friends, to coin a phrase; as for my life today, you well know that, although different from the way in which I have lived at other times, its organization boils down to an adherence to what has always constituted my most secret aspiration, my deepest passion: the desire to experience life, to know life, to possess it, not like one possesses a woman to whom we help ourselves during moments of her weakness and our recklessness, but like a worshipped woman who, convinced of our love, confides in us and surrenders her most delicious secrets. Do you think I get accustomed to living? . . . No, with every passing day the savor of life grows stranger to me, and the eternal miracle that is the universe astonishes me more. Life. Who knows what it is? Not religions, since they consider it a step toward other regions; not science, since it merely investigates the laws that govern it without discovering its cause or its purpose. Perhaps art, which copies it . . . perhaps love, which creates it. Do you think the majority of people who die, have lived? Well, don't be too sure; see here: most men, one group in constant struggle to meet its daily needs, the other locked in to a profession, to a field of expertise, to a belief, as in a prison that has only a single window open always onto the same horizon, most men die not having lived it, not having taken from it more than a blurry impression of fatigue . . . Ah! To live life . . . that is what I want, to feel all that can be felt, to know all that can be known, to do all things possible . . . The months spent diving for pearls, not seeing the sand on the beaches and the sky and the greenish waves, breathing deep the salty steep of the sea; the age of orgies and earthly pell-mell in Paris; the months of retreat in the old Spanish convent, between whose thick grey walls are heard echoing only the monotone prayers of the friars and the solemn music of the plainsong; my restless stint in Conills's office, with my fortune tied up in the dizzying machinery of Yankee business, and my head full of prices and calculations, a complete grind; the refined residences in Italy, in which, locked away from the world and having no thought for myself, I lived cloistered in churches and museums and dreamt for hours on end in loving contemplation of the works of my favorite artists like Il Sodoma and Leonardo. All of these are five roads taken with crazed enthusiasm, traveled frenzily, then diverged from for fear that death would catch me unawares on one of them before I could head down others, down those other new ones I try to travel now and down which you say I've been vainly squandering my energy . . . Ah! To live life! To get drunk on it, mix all its palpitations with the palpitations of our heart before it turns to frozen ash; to feel it in all its forms, in the shouting at the rally where the disordered soul of the rabble is stirred and floods its banks, in the acrid perfume of the strange flower that is opening, fantastically multicolored, in the warm atmosphere of the hothouse; in the guttural sound of the words that, made into song, have for centuries accompanied the music of the Arabian guzla; in the divine convulsion that chills the mouths of women as they lie in the throes of voluptuous death; in the fever that seethes from the jungle floor where the last worldly remains of the savage tribe are hidden . . . Tell me, Sáenz, are all those conflicting experiences and the clashing visions of the universe that seek me out, all that is what you want me to give up in order to set about writing quatrains and carving out sonnets?"

"No," the other man answered, unruffled. "I never said not to think but rather not to overdo it. You contend that what I call overdoing it is to you what is strictly necessary, and you scoff at my sermonizing. Clearly, if the result of all your labors seemed up to your standards, I would applaud you, but what you want is to enjoy, and that is what you pursue in your studies, in your business affairs, in your loves, in your hatreds. It's not your intellectual complications that don't let you write, nor your great critical faculties that would require that you produce masterpieces in order to satisfy them, no, that's not it; it's the demands placed on you by your exacerbated senses and the urgency to satisfy them, that's what rules you. Why, if it were up to me I'd remove one by one all the things blocking you from writing and from making a name for yourself. You want to know what it is that holds you back from writing? Enervating luxury, the refined comfort of this house with its enormous gardens full of flowers and populated with statues, its hundred-year-old park, its hothouse where, as in the poisoned atmosphere of the native forests, grow the most singular species of tropical flora. You know what it is? It's not so much the tapestries fading in the hall, nor the sumptuary salons, nor the bronzes, marbles, and paintings in the gallery, nor the Far East room with all those loud silks and flamboyant gimcracks, nor the collections of weapons and porcelain, not to mention your library, nor the watercolors and drawings that you shut yourself in to see for weeks at a time. No, it's the other things. The things that stimulate the body, the weapons, the strenuous exercises, your wild hunts with the Merizaldes and the Monteverdes; your complicated business dealings; the hydrotherapy salon, the bedchamber and boudoir worthy of a courtesan. They are the new vices you say you're inventing, those jewels in whose contemplation you spend your time fascinated by the sparkle, as a hysteric would be fascinated; the tea dispatched directly from Canton, the coffee Rovira sends you, chosen bean by bean; the tobacco from the Orient and the cigarettes from Down Under, the Russian kummel and the Swedish krishabaar, all the nice touches of the princely life you lead, and all those little dainties that have replaced the poet in you with a pleasure-seeker who by dint of pleasure is headed fast for depletion . . . Man! Here you are as healthy as a horse and strong as an ox, and you've taken to drinking tonics of the sort that they give to paralytics, and that only to feel more full of life than you already are! Look, if it were up to me I'd take away all your refinements and your sumptuosities with which you surround yourself, I'd weaken you a bit to calm you, I'd send you off to live in a little town, in a poor, peaceful environment where you'd converse with countryfolk and wouldn't see any other paintings than the church icons, nor would you get your hands on any other books than The Christian Year, lent by the priest. If it were in my hands I would save you from yourself. After six months of living in that environment you would be a new man, and you would set about writing a poem like those you should write, like those it is your duty to write."

"Ah, so it's my duty to write them, is it?" asked Fernández, laughing. "Well, now, that's rich!" And suddenly becoming serious: "Happy you who knows what each man's duties are, and who fulfills those you think are yours, as you do. Duty! Crime! Virtue! Vice! . . . Words, as Hamlet says . . . I'm in the situation in which that shoemaker supposed us to be, that fellow who, when he would get drunk, would keep us at the school exit, remember?"

"Ah, Landínez the shoemaker," answered Juan Rovira, as if he were talking to him. "The day before yesterday I came across him drunker than ever and he stopped me with his eternal singsong: 'Give me a peseta, sir. You don't realize the position you hold in society; you don't know right from wrong.' So, José, what do you have to do with that sloven?" he said, questioning Fernández.

"You don't understand these things," he responded. "It's an inside joke I have with Sáenz. So tell me," he asked, turning to the doctor, "do you really think my duty is to write poems? Well, look at that skull," he added, showing with his slender, nervous hand a death's-head whose hollow eye sockets where the shadows pooled seemed to stare at him from the pedestal of the Venus de Milo where it was placed. "That skull tells me every night that my duty is to live with all my might, with all my life!"

"And yet, verses lure me, and I should like to write—why hide the fact from you? In these final days of the year I dream constantly of writing a poem, but I can't find the form . . . This morning returning on horseback from Villa Helena I seemed to hear inside myself some finished stanzas that were fluttering to find a way out. Verses make themselves inside one, one does not make them, one simply writes them down . . . Do you not know that, Rovira . . . ?"

"No, how should I know those things!" answered the addressee. "I like yours and they're certainly good, since a man of taste who has horses like the dappled pair in your carriage and the Arabian you ride, and a house like this and so many paintings and so many statues and cigars of this quality," he said, showing the long ash of the nearly black cigar that he was smoking, "it's as plain as plain could be that he can't make bad verses!"

"Why don't you write a poem, José?" Sáenz insisted.

"Because you wouldn't understand it, maybe, just as you didn't understand the 'Songs from the Beyond,'" said the poet listlessly. "Don't you remember Andrés Ramírez's article in which he called me a disgusting pornographer and said my verses were a mix of holy water and Spanish fly? Well, that'd be the fate of the poem I'd write. The fact is I don't want to say but rather suggest, and for suggestion to work, the reader needs to be an artist. In imaginations lacking in faculties of that order, what effect would the work of art produce? None. Half of it lies in the verse, in the statue, in the painting, the other in the brain of the one hearing, seeing, or dreaming. Drum your fingers on that table, and clearly only a few blows will sound; run them over the ivory keys and you'll produce a symphony: And the public is nearly always a table and not a piano that vibrates like this one," he concluded, sitting at the Steinway and playing the first notes of the prologue to the Mephisto.

"Fernández," said Rovira, holding up his endless pacing to approach the table and shake the ash from the cigar he was smoking into an embossed copper ashtray. "Look, Fernández: don't fret over this doctor's lectures; he just wants to be your don Pedro Recio Tirteafuera, nor over writing a few verses more or less, so your admirers proclaim you a genius the day after your burial! It's better to live the good life for three days, than three centuries in the heart of posterity . . . Pay no mind, my boy, have fun, take care, get more Arabian horses and more weapons if that sounds good to you, buy more old relics and more gewgaws, get involved up to your neck in politics, be loved by all the women who fancy you and let yourself love all those whom you fancy, don't write a single verse again if you don't feel like it . . . For all that I give you permission, in exchange for your satisfying tonight a whim I have had for some time . . . I want to hear you read some pages that, as you once told me, have to do with the name of your estate, with a trifolium design and a butterfly several volumes of your library have stamped in gold on their soft covers, and that painting by an English painter . . . What do you call him? Decadent? No . . . Symbolist? No, Pre-Raphaelite? That's it, Pre-Raphaelite, which you have in the gallery and which I cannot manage to understand no matter how much I look at it every time I pass by it . . . Do you know what I'm talking about? . . ."

"Yes, I know what you're talking about," Fernández answered, rising upon hearing the sound of voices and steps in the next room.

The heavy red cloth door-curtain trimmed in gold that closed off the right entry was drawn back, opening the way to Luis Cordovez and Máximo Pérez.

"Good evening, I brought you this man for you to entertain," Cordovez said, stretching his hand out to Fernández; "Juan, Oscar," greeting informally the friends with whom Pérez was speaking. "And I've come to be disinfected of all the coarseness I've heard in these last two hours . . . Give me a glass of your driest sherry, and sit down here," he added, motioning at an armchair next to his. "I need to hear fine poetry to disinfect my soul . . . If you only knew where I've been! . . ."

"Well, it doesn't seem impossible to guess; from a meal at which you were near a blonde . . . your coat gives it away . . . Irreproachable! . . ." Fernández added, noticing the fresh gardenia that Cordovez was wearing in the buttonhole of his tailcoat and the thick pearls that buttoned up his shirt front.

"You see there, you're mistaken! Poets are forever dreaming delightful things. Not at all, man, I'm coming from a dinner given by Ramón Rey for Daniel Avellaneda, in which we spoke of politics in the beginning and religion and women toward the end. Thus I'm telling you I need you to read me verses by Núñez de Arce to disinfect me. No, not verses," he added, directing a glance at Fernández in which was betrayed his almost brotherly love and his fanatic enthusiasm for the poet. "You know what? Not verses by Núñez de Arce . . . it's your prose that I want . . . I've come to ask you to dream as you say . . . it's been three days since I've asked anyone to dream out of fear they ill serve me and I was thinking every minute, let this night arrive so I can beseech you to read some notes you took on a journey through Switzerland, which you have never shown me . . . You'll read them to us in a while, won't you? . . . If you knew that I spent a horrible day today thinking about you, with the idée fixe that you were ill . . . But you're well, right? . . ."

"I'm never well in the last days of the year," answered Fernández, as if his mind were on something that preoccupied him. "I'm never well in the last days of December."

The freshness and liveliness of Luis Cordovez, whose delicate features and budding brown beard recalled the profile of Scheffer's Christ, without the dark curls that fell down his narrow forehead, nor the tails that gave shape to his bust, managing to diminish the likeness, formed a strange contrast with the meditative lethargy of the pale semblance and spiritlessness of Máximo Pérez's grey eyes. The latter man's thinness, hardly concealed by the light cheviot he had on, could be discerned in the lines of his body stretched out on the neighboring divan, in a posture of sickly fatigue.

"You're still not doing well, eh? . . . Your pains are getting worse? . . ." Sáenz asked him, fixing his inquisitive eyes on him.

"The horrendous pains are still there, in spite of the bromides and the morphine . . . Tonight I felt so bad that I was already on my way out of the club when I came upon Cordovez and he was kind enough to bring me . . . Your colleagues don't know what I have . . . Fernández, tell me, could they not give a precise diagnosis of what you suffered in Paris either? A nervous disorder that Marinoni spoke to me of . . . Tell me, did you describe it somewhere in your diary? . . . If you were to read it to us tonight . . . I think the mere reading of something novel and that interests me greatly would manage to dispel my dark thoughts a bit."

"I had prompted José earlier to read us something related to the name of the estate, to Villa Helena," Rovira said, out of sorts and as if fearful of not attaining what he was after; "now you and Cordovez come along, each with his own idea, and it'll turn out that José won't read us anything. Fernández, what do you say?"

"You wanted to read Pereda's latest novel, right, Cordovez?" said the writer absentmindedly. "Remind me to give you the volume."

"No; I had entreated you to read us some notes written in Switzerland, but it turns out that Rovira wishes to hear some pages that he says are connected with Villa Helena; Pérez, others that apparently describe a disease that you suffered in Paris, and Doctor Sáenz has no opinion, he's kept silent as the tomb since we came in . . . Say something, Sáenz!"

"Fernández never listens to me when I talk to him. I've been telling him for four years to write and he never listens to me. José, don't you have a short story or something that takes place in Paris on New Year's Eve?" the doctor insinuated . . ."Why don't you read it to us?"

"That's all Her . . ." said the writer, as if lost in a dream; "this morning the white roses in the wrought-iron gate at Villa Helena; at midday the fluttering of the white butterfly that came in the study window . . . Now four conflicting desires come together for me to mention her . . ."

He passed his hand over his forehead and then remained quiet for ten minutes in which he seemed to forget about everything and fall into deep meditation, without any of the friends daring to rouse him.

"Fernández, aren't you going to read us anything?" asked Rovira impatiently, stopping at the former's armchair . . . "Do you have a headache? . . . It's the work from today . . . What do you work for? . . . Will you read us something after all? . . ."

José Fernández, after searching in one of the dark corners of the room, where in the reddish dark only the whiteness of a bouquet of irises and the outline of a bronze vase were suggested, after dimming the lights on the chandelier, sat near the desk, and placing a closed book on the velvet tablecloth, remained looking at it for a few moments.

It was a thick volume with dull gold locks and corners. Over a background of enameled blue, encrusted in the black morocco of the covers, there were three green leaves on which fluttered a butterfly with its wings wrought in tiny little diamonds.

Fernández settled into his chair, opened the book, and after leafing through it for a long while, he read the following by lamplight:

Paris, 3 June, 189-. . .

The reading of two books that are like a perfect antithesis of intuitive comprehension and systematic incomprehension of Art and life, have absorbed me these days: they form the first thousand pedantic, pseudoscientific elucubrations which a German doctor, Max Nordau, titled Degeneration, and the other, the two volumes of the diary, of the written soul, of María Bashkirtseff, the incomparably gentle Russian girl dead in Paris of genius and of consumption, at age twenty-four in a Rue de Prony hotel.

Like a nearsighted Eskimo in a museum of Greek marbles, full of glorious Apollos and immortally beautiful Venuses, Nordau wanders among the masterpieces the human spirit has produced in the last fifty years. He wears thick black lenses over his eyes, and in his hand is a box full of file cards with the names of all the manias classified and enumerated by modern alienists. He lingers at the foot of the masterpiece, compares its lines with those of his own ideal of beauty, finds it deformed, chooses a name to give to the artist's imagined disease that produced it, and sticks the classifying label on the august white marble. Seen through his black spectacles, judged in the light of his aesthetic canon, Rossetti is an idiot, Swinburne a superior degenerate, Verlaine a fainthearted degenerate with an asymmetrical cranium and mongoloid face, vagrant, impulsive, dipsomaniacal; Tolstoy, a mystic, hysteric degenerate; Baudelaire, an obscene maniac; Wagner, the most degenerate of the degenerates, graphonomer, blasphemer, and erotomaniac. Blasted classifier of manias, you who have not experienced life and have not found in your technical vocabulary the formula with which to circumscribe the masterworks of bygone ages, listen here: were the men of the Renaissance consummate neuropaths, they whose works, canvases and marbles and bronzes, where the gold and shadow of ages heap mystery upon mystery, stir today's sensitive men with the captivating enigma of their lines and half-tints? Behold the suffering and somber Christs, more wounds than flesh and more soul than body, that languish among the shadows in the oils of Sodom; cross-examine the ambiguous smiles of Leonardo's figures; breathe in the stench Valdés Leal's paintings give off; consider the refined, barbaric cruelty of El Españoleto's crucifixions; plumb the depths of the centuries with your coarse hands and stick your pathological classification tags on each of those who felt and express what the men of today feel. Oh, grotesque German doctor, Zoilo to the Homers that have sung the pains and pleasures of the eternal Psyche, in this angst-ridden fin de siècle, your obscure name is rescued from oblivion! . . .

Your coarse German hands could not catch in flight the butterfly of light that was Bashkirtseff's soul by analyzing her, to profane a single page of the diary. "Marie Bashkirtseff," you wrote, "a young dead degenerate, touched by moral insanity, by the onset of delusions of grandeur and of persecution and morbid erotic exaltation" (Degénérescence, volume II, pg. 121). And once having written the sentence in which you accumulated four pathologies to define one of the most vibrant, most burning souls of the present day, on your thick lips played a delighted smile of beatific, idiotic satisfaction!

From the depths of the simple tomb that holds your ashes in the Passy Cemetery and where the intellectuals of tomorrow will go to cover with flowers the marble that bears your name, from the depths of time where you will arrive writ large by legend, forgive, O sweetest death!, the pseudo-scholar maniac that immortalized you, joining you to Wagner and to Ibsen in the expression of his deep disdain!

Maurice Barrès, in the subtle pages he titles "The Legend of a Cosmopolitan," in which he studies Bashkirtseff, wishes to give us, while not a definitive portrait, three instantaneous impressions of three of her moods. He paints her as an adolescent, on the frozen savannas of Russia, allowing to develop within her the spiritual and sensual vigor that give impetus to her life; in mid-youth, forming the background of the portrait with dark branches, through which the music of an orchestra quivers at nightfall, where the waters of Bohemia lay, and touched by the cold hand of consumption that lends luster to her eyes with an artificial shine and flushes her pale cheeks with the stir of her impoverished blood, under the sun of Nice, smiling and with her bodice decorated with a tiny bouquet of mimosas and anemones. None of the ideologue's disparagements satisfies me. I close my eyes and I envision her thus, following the pages of the Diary: It is late at night . . . The family, tired from the day's trivial difficulties, sleeps peacefully. She, in the silent room where she is surrounded by her favorite books, Spinoza, Fichte, the most subtle of the poets, the most caustic of the modern novelists, leaning on the desk, the warm lamplight falling on her mass of brown hair, her head resting on her pale hand, she stays up and goes over her day. She rose at daybreak, and as she ran down the balcony blinds, seeking an artificial night conducive to study, the passing of a group of workers down the street, a street full of the pre-dawn mist and lashed by rain, moved her as she thought of those wretches' lot. After several hours of reading Balzac during which she communed with that enormous spirit, the project of the painting she dreams of, the painting that would immortalize her, has sent her to Sèvres, where the model awaits her, and there in the luminous landscape of spring, her hands trembling with artistic fever, her eyes open wide to see everything, her nerves stretched taut to work the miracle of translating to oil the freshness of the budding new growth, the warmth of the sun that lights up the countryside, the rosy flesh of the model, over which floated the diaphanous shadows of the branches of a peach tree in bloom; the damp green of the tender grass, the purple of the violets and the yellow of the buttercups that glaze the meadow, the blue of the pale sky on the horizon, she has worked, losing herself in activity, frenziedly, in a mad fit of art, hour after hour, the day long. In the afternoon, exhausted, disenchanted to the depths of her soul with painting, convinced that all her efforts to reach the dreamt-of goal will be in vain, there was an instant in which she had to contain herself in order not to tear up the oil she was working on with her every ounce of strength. An elegant gesture puts her momentary anguish out of her mind. Doucet, the dressmaker, is waiting for her to try on a pink silk crêpe dress for him, which has as its only adornment a garland of Bengala roses. The two have been coordinated so that, when she wears it at the next dance, when the gathering sees her cross the modern ballroom among the propriety of black tuxes and white shirt fronts, they have the illusion of beholding the most beautiful of Greuze's paintings, smiling and brought to life. And how the dress excited her! For an hour she forgets the artist she is, the philosopher that works inside her and that analyzes life every minute and whom the eternal problems preoccupy . . . No, that is not what she is, she feels that she was born to concentrate in her all the graces and refinements of a civilization, that her true role, the only one equal to her talents, is that of a Madame Récamier, that her theater will be a salon where the exceptional intellects assemble and whence the double light of supreme worldly elegance and the most high-flying intellectual speculation emanates . . . The most illustrious men of the day will be the guests of that center; there Renan will smile suavely, moving his great kindly head with an episcopal motion; Taine will come from time to time and will hold forth, a bit wrapped up for brief spells in his incessant thought, other times lively, asking questions in phrases as short, neat, and precise as formulas; Zola, potbellied and pallid, will tell the outline of his future novel; Daudet will rove the curious gaze of his myopic eyes over the old faded tapestries that showcase his sketches, and rest against the brocade of the ashlars his long tangled locks; the painters, Bastien Lepage, the favorite, tiny, pug-nosed dynamo of a man, with his adolescent blond beard; Carolus Durán, with his air of a swashbuckler and a ladykiller; Master Rohault de Fleury, he of the tender Arab countenance and the sleeping eyes; the poets Coppée, Sully Prudhomme, Theuriet, all of them will be welcome there as in a house of art, and they will feel indulged and pampered as if by a sister. She will hold the scepter in her hands, she will be the Vittoria Colonna of tomorrow, encircled by that court of thinkers and artists . . .

Oh, fruitless dreams burst like soap bubbles that are born, take on color, and pop in the air! . . . Upon leaving Doucet's house, the idea of speaking with the doctor, of telling him the truth about the affliction devouring her, prevails upon her. She has felt so unwell in recent days, the pains that have tormented her have been so sharp, so intense has the fever been that has scorched her veins; so profound the decay that has laid her up for hours on end! . . . In the grave silence of the doctor's office the Æsculapius slowly auscultates her, taps her with soft little blows of his slender fingers, attentively applies his ear to her silky smooth skin, her delicate bust, and after the thorough examination prescribes caustics that burn her bosom, plaster applications that stain and disfigure, horrible drugs, a trip to the Mediodía that was tantamount to giving up everything—art, society, pleasures—and to justify the rigid prescriptions and with his coldness of a man of science used to others' pain, he utters the brutal words. She's consumptive . . . the right destroyed by tubercules, the left already encroached upon, the deafness that has been torturing her for months will steadily worsen; the cough that wracks and pains her, the awful bouts of insomnia that deplete her, all that will grow, gaining strength, and spread like wildfire, doing away with her . . .

She's consumptive! Yes, he's sorry, he knows. There was a moment in which as she left the doctor's house she succumbed to despair and felt close to death, but for two hours she forgot her illness . . . Through the studio's large open window, near the little room where she is now, the nighttime sky could be seen, a deep, transparent blue; the moonlight filtered through there and flooded the darkness with its pacifying spell. As she sat there at the piano, the ivory keyboard quivering under her nervous fingers, the music of Beethoven stretching out into the dormant air, and in the semidarkness, evoked by the pained notes of the nocturne and by a reading of Hamlet, floated the corpse of Ophelia, Ophelia, pale and blonde, crowned with flowers, pale and blonde, swept along by the melody as if by the treacherous waters of the murderous river . . . the pale blonde corpse crowned with flowers, carried off by the gentle current . . .

José Asunción Silva (1865-1896) was a renowned Colombian writer and is still one of the country's most revered cultural icons.

Kelly Washbourne is Assistant Professor of Spanish Translation at Kent State University in Ohio.