let us now praise famous men, james agee y walker evans (crónica)
reportear es violentar
Partió como un encargo de reportaje que, por su extensión, terminó convirtiéndose en un libro. Un libro incómodo para un editor convencional –al menos según los parámetros de los años 30–, pues combinaba dos disciplinas periodísticas, narración y fotografía, y se centraba en personajes esencialmente antinoticiosos, como en ese momento lo eran los más pobres campesinos del sur de Estados Unidos.
Hoy se considera a Let us now praise famous men, de James Agee (redactor) y Walker Evans (fotógrafo), un texto clásico de no ficción, y un intento poderosísimo por dar a conocer entre una audiencia culta las miserias del modo de vida de gente sin acceso alguno a las oportunidades de las que se jactan sus propios compatriotas. Hay un buen análisis del valor del libro aquí. Pero lo que a mí más me gusta, lejos, está en la introducción, una suerte de manifiesto antiperiodístico escrito por James Agee contra su propio gremio, y el cinismo implícito en cualquier encargo reporteril. En palabras simples, el conocer a esos campesinos e intentar comprenderlos se le reveló al cronista como un intento intolerablemente frívolo, que lo dejó avergonzado de descubrir que el periodismo no es otra cosa que una intromisión violenta, pero socialmente legitimada, en nombre de un mal entendido realismo.
Traduzco el primer párrafo de esa introducción dura y certera (el resto queda en inglés). Desgraciadamente, no puedo decir que no la comprenda:
“Me referí a este tipo de trabajo como algo ‘curioso’. Será mejor que me explique.
Me parece curioso —por no decir obsceno y profundamente terrorífico— que a una asociación de seres humanos reunidos en una compañía por necesidad y azar y en pos de lucro pueda ocurrírsele indagar íntimamente en las vidas de un grupo humano indefenso y terriblemente dañado, una familia rural ignorante y sin recursos, con el propósito de hacer desfilar la desnudez, la desventaja, la humillación de esas vidas ante otro grupo de seres humanos en el nombre de la ciencia, del “periodismo honesto” (lo que sea signifique esa paradoja), el humanismo, el coraje social o el dinero; y por una reputación de conciencia social y desprejuicio que, cuando está debitamente calificada, puede intercambiarse en cualquier banco por dinero (y en política, por votos o cargos); y que estas personas puedan ser capaces de considerar tal perspectiva sin la más mínima duda de su calificación para realizar un trabajo ‘honesto’ y de tener una conciencia más que clara, y con la virtual certeza de una aprobación pública casi unánime”.
“Who are you who will read these words and study these photographs, and through what cause, by what chance, and for what purpose, and by what right do you qualify to, and what will you do about it; and the question, Why we make this book, and set it at large, and by what right, and for what purpose, and to what good end, or none: the whole memory of the South in its six-thousand-mile parade and flowering outlay of the façades of cities, and of the eyes in the streets of towns, and of hotels, and of the trembling heat, and of the wide wild opening of the tragic land, wearing the trapped frail flowers of its garden of faces; the fleet flush and flower and fainting of the human crop it raises; the virulent, insolent, deceitful, pitying, infinitesimal and frenzied running and searching, on this colossal peasant map, of two angry, futile and bottomless, botched and overcomplicated youthful intelligences in the service of an anger and of a love and of an undiscernible truth, and in the frightening vanity of their would-be purity; the sustaining, even now, and forward moving, lifted on the lifting of this day as ships on a wave, above whom, in a few hours, night once more will stand up in his stars, and they decline through lamplight and be dreaming statues, of those, each, whose lives we knew and whom we love and intend well toward, and of whose living we know little in some while now, save that quite steadily, in not much possible change for better or much worse, mute, innocent, helpless and incorporate among that small-moted and inestimable swarm and pollen stream and fleet of single, irreparable, unrepeatable existences, they are led, gently, quite steadily, quite without mercy, each a little farther toward the washing and the wailing, the sunday suit and the prettiest dress, the pine box, and the closed clay room whose frailly decorated roof, until rain has taken it flat into oblivion, wears the shape of a ritual scar and of an inverted boat: curious, obscene, terrifying, beyond all search of dream unanswerable, those problems which stand thickly forth like light from all matter, triviality, chance, intention, and record in the body, of being, of truth, of conscience, of hope, of hatred, of beauty, of indignation, of guilt, of betrayal, of innocence, of forgiveness, of vengeance, of guardianship, of an indenominable fate, predicament, destination, and God.
Therefore it is in some fear that I approach those matters at all, and in much confusion.
If I had explained myself clearly you would realize by now that through this non-“artistic” view, this effort to suspend or destroy imagination, there opens before consciousness, and within it, a universe luminous, spacious, incalculably rich and wonderful in each detail, as relaxed and natural to the human swimmer, and as full of glory, as his breathing: and that it is possible to capture and communicate this universe not so well by any means of art as through such open terms as I am trying it under. In a novel, a house or person has his meaning, his existence, entirely through the writer. Here, a house or a person has only the most limited of his meaning through me: his true meaning is much huger. It is that he exists, in actual being, as you do and as I do, and as no character of the imagination can possibly exist. His great weight, mystery, and dignity are in this fact. As for me, I can tell you of him only what I saw, only so accurately as in my terms I know how: and this in turn has its chief stature not in any ability of mine but in the fact that I too exist, not as a work of fiction, but as a human being. Because of his immeasurable weight in actual existence, and because of mine, every word I tell of him has inevitably a kind of immediacy, a kind of meaning, not at all necessarily “superior” to that of imagination, but of a kind so different that a work of the imagination (however intensely it may draw on “life”) can at best only faintly imitate the least of it.
The communication is not by any means so simple. It seems to me now that to contrive techniques appropriate to it in the first place, and capable of planting it cleanly in others, in the second, would be a matter of years, and I shall probably try none of it or little, and that very tortured and diluted, at present. I realize that, with even so much involvement in explanations as this, I am liable seriously, and perhaps irretrievably, to obscure what would at best be hard enough to give its appropriate clarity and intensity; and what seems to me most important of all: namely, that these I will write of are human beings, living in this world, innocent of such twistings as these which are taking place over their heads; and that they were dwelt among, investigated, spied on, revered, and loved, by other quite monstrously alien human beings, in the employment of still others still more alien; and that they are now being looked into by still others, who have picked up their living as casually as if it were a book, and who were actuated toward this reading by various possible reflexes of sympathy, curiosity, idleness, et cetera, and almost certainly in a lack of consciousness, and conscience, remotely appropriate to the enormity of what they are doing.
As it is, though, I’ll do what little I can in writing. Only it will be very little. I’m not capable of it; and if I were, you would not go near it at all. For if you did, you would hardly bear to live. As a matter of fact, nothing I might write could make any difference whatever. It would only be a “book” at the best. If it were a safely dangerous one it would be “scientific” or “political” or “revolutionary.” If it were really dangerous it would be “literature” or “religion” or “mysticism” or “art,” and under one such name or another might in time achieve the emasculation of acceptance. If it were dangerous enough to be of any remote use to the human race it would be merely “frivolous” or “pathological,” and that would be the end of that. Wiser and more capable men than I shall ever be have put their findings before you, findings so rich and so full of anger, serenity, murder, healing, truth, and love that it seems incredible the world were not destroyed and fulfilled in the instant, but you are too much for them: the weak in courage are strong in cunning; and one by one, you have absorbed and have captured and dishonored, and have distilled of your deliverers the most ruinous of all your poisons; people hear Beethoven in concert halls, or over a bridge game, or to relax; Cézannes are hung on walls, reproduced, in natural wood frames; van Gogh is the man who cut off his ear and whose yellows became recently popular in window decoration; Swift loved individuals but hated the human race; Kafka is a fad; Blake is in the Modern Library; Freud is a Modern Library Giant; Dovschenko’s Frontier is disliked by those who demand that it fit the Eisenstein esthetic; nobody reads Joyce any more; Céline is a madman who has incurred the hearty dislike of Alfred Kazin, reviewer for the New York Herald Tribune book section, and is, moreover, a fascist; I hope I need not mention Jesus Christ, of whom you have managed to make a dirty gentile.
However that may be, this is a book about “sharecroppers,” and is written for all those who have a soft place in their hearts for the laughter and tears inherent in poverty viewed at a distance, and especially for those who can afford the retail price; in the hope that the reader will be edified, and may feel kindly disposed toward any well-thought-out liberal efforts to rectify the unpleasant situation down South, and will somewhat better and more guiltily appreciate the next good meal he eats; and in the hope, too, that he will recommend this little book to really sympathetic friends, in order that our publishers may at least cover their investment and that just the merest perhaps) some kindly thought may be turned our way, and a little of your money fall to poor little us.
Above all else: in God’s name don’t think of it as Art”.