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Hunter of the Self: Luis Oyarzún Peña’s Diario de Oriente

By Jessica Sequeira.

The diary is an attractive form in the most literal sense: like poetry, it gathers to it all the tiny scurrying moments that retrospective analysis can’t ever quite capture the same way, serving as a sort of sticky trap for passing thoughts. The diary genus contains within it many species, but all of its forms tend toward a description of the world in order to arrive at a better understanding of self, and conversely, an analysis of self in order to arrive at a more complete interaction with the world.

The Chilean poet Luis Oyarzún Peña kept notebooks all his life, both private journals and travel diaries. Far from attempting the impossible act of neutral observation, these diaries not only register the writer’s interactions and movements throughout the day, but also act as their own gloss, providing an ongoing commentary that illuminates and critiques what the author sees. Oyarzún Peña’s Diario de Oriente [Diary of the Orient] was written between 1957 and 1960, when the poet was in his late-thirties and serving in his capacity as Dean of the Faculty of Fine Arts at the University of Chile. As the writer travels through a number of Eastern countries, his entries include commentaries on individualism, socialism, happiness, religion and the meaning of life.

The text can be read as an extension of Oyarzún Peña’s better-known Diario Íntimo [Private Diary] re-edited by the Universidad de Valparaíso in 2017, which registers the writer’s daily life and friendships with Nicanor Parra, Jorge Millas, Enrique Lihn, and many others as he developed his literary career in Chile. Yet the travel impressions deserve their place as a standalone text, since during his travels Oyarzún Peña’s experience was much more solitary, and the cultural distance he felt from what surrounded him created a space for reflection.

‘Oriente’ can be translated either as ‘East’, or more literally as ‘Orient’. The latter is a complex term for many reasons, which Edward Said famously dedicated himself to elucidating, but perhaps here its use is appropriate. There is a certain lack of precision in Oyarzún Peña’s delineations, and his East comes to seem a rather eclectic selection of countries to be treated as a whole, more a mythos with its own psyche and inclinations than a group of differentiated countries. Supposedly devoted to the Soviet Union, China and India, places that already vary a great deal from one another, the third section of the book additionally loops in Rangoon (in Burma, which at Oyarzún Peña’s time of writing had declared independence from Britain) as well as cities in Greece and Egypt.

This casual lumping of countries goes both ways. While Oyarzún Peña may see the land he moves through as the ‘Orient’, he also finds that many of the people he encounters think of Latin America as a single coherent ensemble. This produces mixed feelings in him, especially when he finds that he is greeted warmly because Latin America is viewed as a similarly underdog region and ally against the imperialist West. For Oyarzún Peña, this is a backhanded compliment, as he considers Chile to be in many respects more similar to the capitalist West than socialist East, and it is from this position that he writes.

Luis Oyarzún Peña, Diario de Oriente: Unión Soviética, China e India
(Ediciones Universidad Austral de Chile, 2016)

Highly conscious of the value of individualism, which does not always thrive under a socialist state, Oyarzún Peña’s critiques of the cultures he encounters begin from their restrictions on the individual. Several of the countries he visits have embarked on social experiments. When Oyarzún Peña first enters Moscow, on 2 November 1957, he notes that the Soviet Union has just sent a little dog into space. He visits the Museum of Reconstruction in Moscow and a few kolkhoz farms, listens to a reading of Krushchev’s report at the Lenin Stadium, and attends a military parade, where, after hearing an Indian communist speak, he writes that ‘listening to these phrases heard a thousand times, this thought without invention, one goes back to feeling the same old annoyance as ever at all the ideologies that mechanise themselves into a simple repertoire of formulas.’ He attends an evening gala at the Bolshoi Theatre, sits through another morning of official speeches, and visits the Hermitage Museum in Leningrad, where he walks around and takes in sights. In Leningrad he reflects:

The charm of the city is curious, on these brief days without sun. It seems to offer one a life of interiors, dedicated to meditation or to wandering through the mists. But in the current Soviet Union, the long and idle meditations that we so love do not seem to have a place. Thought here is chained to action, and action now rests on a consecrated theory. The Soviet regime has circumscribed its world. It has fixed its limits and ends, and outside science and technology, thought does nothing but repeat itself in crystallised slogans. If I were to live in this country, it would be this that I missed most: the free wandering of a conscience that observes and attempts to delve deeper into itself, which here does not figure on the register of acceptable activities.

Despite his reservations, when he leaves he writes that ‘it moves me to leave this country, this mysterious world I have hardly glimpsed, amidst the fog, amidst the flags, amidst the hymns.’

Stopping briefly in Prague, Oyarzún Peña writes that socialism there is a relatively new phenomenon.

From the Charles Bridge, flanked by Christs and saints, the landscape of Prague offers one of those visions that give Europe its charm: towers, domes, palaces, gardens, streets that by no prior arrangement harmonize with one another as if they had been rigorously planned, thanks to a spiritual convergence that, without propaganda or political parties, gives rise to victories of style.

For socialism to succeed there, ‘it will also have to produce an inner revolution that makes us more respectful of the variety of the real, and frees us from the automatic simplicities that sterilise thought as much as the human landscape.’

In China, he visits the site of the ancient Forbidden City, and in Peking goes to the caves where Peking Man was discovered. He thinks about the reasons behind such scientific investigations into the origins of man. ‘Each one of us—even the Chinese—goes in search of himself, is a hunter of himself. We all want to see ourselves in our origin, in our existential Adam, like someone who wanders everywhere inquiring into an permanently dubious lineage.’

At the School of Fine Arts in Peking he meets an artist who criticizes Western painting for being ‘inhuman’, for not reflecting the life of the people, and does not speak the rebuttal he later jots in his diary:

Oil painting is a recent development in China, something from this century, and indeed, one does not note any vocation for it. It is too dense for those light hands, accustomed to the flight of calligraphy, the delicate traceries made with quickness and the pleasures of immediate understanding of the insect that flies between flowers.

The poet goes to see a Buddhist temple in Shanghai, and the next day a workshop of artisans who work with jade and marble. He is impressed by the collective nature of the work: ‘“This is the last ancient people,” Juan Gómez Millas said to me. Ancient, yes, but preceding the Greeks; a people subject to the laws and rhythms of nature, prior to the appearance of the solitary and rebel individual soul.’ He notes that Chinese society has acquired a new faith, the kind spoken of by Teilhard de Chardin: ‘It is a new humanity, the humanity of people-ants who, however heavily it may weigh on us individualists, maintain the essential dignity and graciousness of man… Heavy subjects are for them a motive for laughter, weightless as tiny grains of rice.’

In Hangchow, he notes the beauty of the landscape, conducive to rest. ‘We sailed in gentle spring sunshine, amidst islands flowering with wisteria, drinking tea… Everything has contributed to subdue the spirits without weakening them, to establish courtesy as a form of relation.’ Back in Peking, he again notes the ‘serene beauty’, but now criticizes it. ‘Among other things, this tranquil harmony, this exasperating lack of passion lead in architecture and painting to a refinement that tires us westerners in a short time due to their perfect uniformity.’

In addition to being a poet and academic professor, Oyarzún Peña was a talented painter and botanist, which might help to explain his careful attention to detail, something this new version of the Diary of the Orient has been careful to honour in the quality of the edition itself, including olive-green flaps patterned with tiny leaves. As a painter, Oyarzún Peña is drawn to autumnal tones: burnt orange, dark green, crimson, heavy cream, chestnut. The textured way that he applies paint to the landscapes and buildings on his canvases suggests not a direct copy of reality but the expression of an interior vision. The importance of art permeates the pages of his diary, and the possibilities of its production are referred to constantly.

For Oyarzún Peña, art is produced to some extent against or outside the state, not under its dictates, and requires a certain level of freedom, even dissent, to exist. He even suggests that ‘an intelligent State should also encourage an art contrary to the official one, so this one does not split into a dozen branches.’ The authentic creations of art emerge from a ‘limit experience’ and cannot be mandated from above:

On this matter, the ever-present shade of resentment always attached to the socialist construction and its idea of the class struggle is clear. There is an initial hate in its attitude that stealthily makes itself known through silences. In China, everyone knows Neruda, but no one knows Rimbaud or Hölderlin. Isn’t that absurd? They know what suits and flatters them.

During his time in the country, Oyarzún Peña continuously reflects on the place of the dissident in Chinese culture: ‘What must become, I wonder, of the free man who does not accept any formula transmitted from the outside, who feels revulsion for all general truths?’ He reads a news release that speaks of ‘negative elements like individualism, pessimism, sentimentalism and anarchism, all ideas fundamentally opposed to communist ideas.’ He also interviews Prime Minister Chou-En-Lai, who assures him that the Golden Age belongs to his country. ‘I admire and I differ,’ Oyarzún Peña writes, elaborating further that:

The saints, the inspired philosophers, the surreal poets, the abstract painters must be re-educated, just like the prostitutes, smokers of opium, adulterers and thieves. The human adventure channels itself in a single direction, unilaterally, and from this point of view—not from that of statistics—this regimen suffocates freedom. It gives greater freedom to the masses, but cuts off the experimental summit of freedom.

For Oyarzún Peña, the value placed on action in China has diminished an emphasis on the spirit, and on that sentiment of death which animates a certain perception of life. ‘The Chinese do not seem to have ever had great existential forebodings before death, which helps one to better understand their placidity, their lack of tragedy, their lightness and their current capacity to build a new society without feeling any anguish over the inevitable passing of time.’ Creation comes from the dynamic confrontation with mortality and a time that exceeds our presence, but the Chinese are living in ‘the naked time of eternity’. As Oyarzún Peña visits the Great Wall, observes workers in Loyang and reads a little book on mysticism ‘as an antidote to the excess of social exteriority’, he writes that ‘I am surprised not to perceive in China—perhaps due to my own inadequacy—expressions of human love. I see more organization, more social conscience than charity, flames of active love, love of one’s neighbor.’

Travelling to a riverside city he wryly comments: ‘After coming to know Wuhan, with its 2,400,000 inhabitants on the banks of the muddy Yangtze, I reconcile myself with Santiago. Not everything can have been the fault of the imperialists. A certain conventional aridity of the Chinese soul must have come into play.’ In Nanking he writes: ‘When our grandparents judged the revolution and communism, they thought these were essentially destructive, dissolvent, nihilistic. On the contrary, they are obsessively constructive, like termites and bees. They construct, they reconstruct, they superconstruct home, family, school, order.’ Oyarzún Peña admits that China ‘resists him’, perhaps due to its ‘impersonality’ and ‘the lack of mysticism in the religiosity of this people, despite Lao-Tsé’. At his most bleak, Oyarzún Peña notes that unhappiness results when there is ‘a radical lack of correspondence between a psique and its landscape’. Yet he always takes the line: ‘I do not signal virtues. I point out differences.’

Oyarzún Peña’s third set of travel notes is quite short, as he supposedly misplaced his notebook from this time. Later he thought of reconstructing the  missing days, but did not think he could capture the spontaneous spirit of the original. These journeys begin in Rangoon. ‘What an ugly city!’ he exclaims. ‘Rangoon explains a great deal of [Neruda’s poetry book] Residence on Earth, in the deleterious atmospheres, the fusion of substances produced there, the sensuality without joy.’ Watching the masses mill about, he remarks: ‘This is the wretched effervescence of the East, without direction, without collective destiny, without a greater individual destiny than that of enduring life in search of Nirvana.’

Moving on to India, in Delhi he watches the meditative practice of a woman named Rahana, or rather a ‘man-woman, androgynous as Shiva’. Afterward he says: ‘I felt for the first time the contact with the truth of India, with its transcendence, with the path so distinct from ours that some of these people have reached the limit.’ Passing on to Cairo, he thinks that: ‘Paradise must be nothing but the goodness of children present in men. Each one supported by the rest throughout this interval of life whose meaning escapes us.’ At last in Pentelis, he comes full circle as he writes that the ‘industrious traders and football-playing youths imitating James Dean give the impression of having just arrived in Buenos Aires, or Santiago…’

Throughout his journey, it becomes clear that what Oyarzún Peña most treasures is development of the interior life, what he calls the spirit, and that when he feels uncomfortable in a country it is because this aspect seems to have been depreciated by the social reality imposed. A restless soul, Oyarzún Peña visited several continents, and was not particularly attached to his own part of the world. It was the varying ways in which the spirit develops under different conditions that truly interested him. Everywhere people face the same challenge: ‘Here now I rub shoulders with Greeks, yesterday with Egyptians, tomorrow with Romans. All destructive, all violent, without brotherliness, without inner peace.’ In Eleusis and Athens, he writes:

The past is here, transformed into tourism. Life right now is what matters. But who is truly sensitive to what is happening right now? Who truly knows what is going on in this world, which with such grandiosity lays waste to past times? Today’s man has as little comprehension of his present as he does his past.

In Oyarzún Peña’s own present, the diary was received with positive reviews from Raúl Silva Castro in El Mercurio, Ricardo Latcham in La Nación, Yerko Moretic in El Siglo, Darío Carmona in Ercilla, Hernán del Solar in La Nación and Jorge Edwards in Ultramar. It is quite a different experience to read these notes years after they were written. The diary reflects the political realities of Oyarzún Peña’s time. Yet the activity of travelling and reflecting on those travels is eternal, and Oyarzún Peña is at his most interesting when he ceases to make regional comparisons and begins to express doubts about his own self.

Jessica Sequeira is a writer and translator from California, currently living in Santiago de Chile. Her works include the collection of stories Rhombus and Oval (What Books), the collection of essays Other Paradises: Poetic Approaches to Thinking in a Technological Age (Zero) and the novel A Furious Oyster (Dostoyevsky Wannabe, forthcoming). She has translated several books from Spanish and French.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Tuesday, June 12th, 2018.