In Praise of Vagrancy


Guillermo Fadanelli

Illustration by Florinda Pamungkas

Corpse with Umbrella

As soon as the rain starts to fall, people bury themselves beneath umbrellas. Lightning scares me, and I’m frightened of those chunks of ice, big enough to open your head up, that come cascading from the sky, but naked rain inspires no fear in me: worn well, a mild cold can even be invigorating. In one of Hugo Claus’s novels, a certain character says: “Societies that carry umbrellas deserve their downfall.” Looking after yourself is one thing, but the diligence with which people carry out this task strikes me as incurably asinine.

I am reminded of an observation made by someone once in a bar on Rue de Bretagne: “I don’t know what would become of Paris without umbrellas.” It was past midnight and we were the last clients in the bar, sipping up the dregs of the evening, our conversation animated only by our reluctance to call it a night and go our separate ways. Someone else, the wisest among us, wondered why Parisians are always so grouchy if they live in such a beautiful city. Take a walk through any garden in Paris and you’ll soon forget how, one day in the future, the human heart will be incapable of resisting even the gentlest of emotions. The table was small, and those of us sitting around it could hear the thud of each word as it fell onto our plates, exactly like an olive pit. A young Polish girl with rose-coloured cheeks broke the unexpected silence. She said that, if philosophy in the Socratic sense still had any meaning, it was because it taught us what to do with the corpses of the people we love most. A corpse doesn’t need an umbrella to protect it from the weather; it needs those who loved it best to join it in the grave.

After sweaters, I think umbrellas are the most ridiculous accoutrement. I could bear them if they were all black, but obviously such a thing would never be permitted. Humanism in its most polished form can be reduced to an ensemble of colourful umbrellas, which, upon closer inspection, is a somewhat gloomy thought. We might feel like drinking up all the water in the dam, but we must save a little bit for the newly born. Such absurdly precautious creatures, we grown-ups! We do it because we are humanists and we insist that our children eat from the same plate. Saving mankind from barbarism implies proving that the future does not belong to us, that nothing around us was created purely for our own benefit: this is the essence of the “ecological spirit.” Of those of us chatting in the bar on Rue de Bretagne that night, only one has procreated. He is careful not to invent suicidal sentences: condemned to humanism, he is forbidden from committing blasphemy against umbrellas. And yet one of us recalls Melchor de Jovellanos’s famous exhortation: “Never will I agree to sacrifice a present generation for the benefit of future ones.” I am suddenly animated by my heady approval of this thought, despite the fact that it was I who expressed it.

I relate this brief story because novels, like humanism, are essentially an ensemble of colourful umbrellas: writers take different paths, and the marching of each to our own rhythm sinks us into apparent solitude. The sum of these solitudes, however, is literature. Literature, in other words, is perhaps the most curious face of being (a word that, despite having no meaning, is nothing less than the crippled motor of philosophy).


Over the bumpy course of my life I have met people as mutually dissimilar as, let’s say, a mollusc and a bird of paradise. On occasion, sitting at a table in a bar surrounded by friends, I have felt as if I am conversing with beings from another planet. I find their experiences, their taste in liquor, their singular conceptions of life, the strange ways in which they inhabit the world profoundly disconcerting. (Some of them even own more than one property, or are in the habit of accumulating money; sinister pastimes, in my view). If I were to labour the point and ask each of them their thoughts on humanity, on whether or not it makes sense to talk about something like human values, I would get a truly motley set of replies. Someone would attest that we live in a post-human age, that humanism is a bourgeois concept, or perhaps that the differences between diverse cultures render a classical folly like humanism unthinkable. The most sensible among them would shrug her shoulders dismissively and change the subject. And I wouldn’t be at all offended.

Almost a decade ago, as I was travelling to Veracruz, where my mother was born, a modestly interesting incident occurred, the memory of which tends to dredge itself up when I least expect it. The heat was melting the windowpanes and the fragrant coast was seeping into the bus, as if a wave had taken us all by surprise leaving behind a residue of salt and prehistoric coral. Having spent nearly the entire trip watching the landscape roll by, I decided to open the voluminous Norman Mailer novel I’d started a few days earlier. I was in the process of reading when I noticed a little girl, barely ten years old, watching me with agonizing intentness. I felt her deer-like gaze on my face from the seat behind. The agonizing intentness shifted to an obsessive scrutiny. She examined my book as if she suspected it contained something more than words . . . Perhaps that man, apparently absorbed in his reading, actually had a secret television hidden in there. When the mother noticed her daughter’s face peering over my shoulder, she scolded: “Don’t bother the man, he’s studying.” Given that none of the other forty odd passengers were reading, I must have looked rather scholarly—a professor going over his lecture notes, perhaps. Then I realised that, for a lot of people, reading and studying are the same thing; it is assumed that reading is directed towards some objective, that there must be some kind of benefit to be derived from it. In a society as poor as Mexico’s, reading for pleasure or reading purely for the sake of serendipity is considered squandered time. If we read, it must be to progress or improve, to escape our misery or attempt to alleviate the suffering of those who work tirelessly just to stay alive. To do otherwise seems arrogant; an act of luxury society has no reason to forgive. Those who practice intellectual dandyism or bookish vagrancy are perchance yet to realise that they are not alone in this world, and that in their entire lives they will be permitted only two moments of solitude: their birth and their death. I’m sorry to say that I have decided to dedicate the days spanning those two moments to the consumption of useless novels. The world can go to hell (where it has always been).

In one particularly animated interview, philosopher Richard Rorty notes that literature stimulates our moral imagination to an even greater extent than philosophy. It does so, he argues, because it does not seek to elaborate principles or systems in order to comprehend human needs; on the contrary, literature has no fixed destiny. If we want to delve deeper into the nature of suffering, we need not turn to professional moral philosophers—first we suffer, then we go and read Dostoevsky or Stendhal. Now, when I read a book like The Gambler I don’t study it in the sense that I become a meticulous seeker of useful knowledge. I read it with the intention of abandoning it if I get bored, or if I begin to dislike it, or if I’m simply tired of reading it. Reading is nothing like the conquest of a mountain or the feats of a sportsman—although, to be fair, we are all familiar with the kinds of novels that demand an excessive amount of stamina, comparable to scaling three mountains in a day. That is precisely my point: we read in order to finish the journey as soon as possible. I start reading a novel with no hope of completing it; I am aware that nobody has forced me to do so, and the sooner I arrive at disappointment the sooner I am free to knock anew at yet another door. I make the final words of Dostoevsky’s The Gambler my own: “Tomorrow, all shall be ended!” I know that anxiety is no prelude to wisdom, but I am comforted, at least, by the thought that wisdom has myriad faces beyond the Stoic ideals of contemplation, restraint and temperance.

Admittedly, the bellicose romanticism that permeates these conclusions is somewhat brazen—shocking, even. Nevertheless, I like to think of this as something more than a homily for pleasure-seeking wanderings or lunatic wisdom: it is a methodology, perhaps, for pursuing the kind of knowledge that is unsure of both what it seeks to know and how to go about knowing it. Is it possible to elaborate a modus operandi if we’re uncertain of the operandi? It’s not often that we devise methodologies just for the sake of it, and yet I intend this to be as close as possible to a Duchamp urinal, or Warhol’s shamelessly exhibited soapboxes. Such is the ultimate end of this absurd lesson.

Let me put it even more vulgar terms: walking lends certainty to thought; we learn on the road, we observe the world because we move against the movement of the planet, even though at the same time we are thoroughly bound to it. Spinoza, one of the most extravagant philosophers who has ever lived—which is to say, one of the most serious—believed that an active body led to a sharper mind. Putting aside the question of dualism, I believe Spinoza’s statement places us somewhere beyond the age-old dispute over whether or not the mind is part of the body. Knowledge is a kind of wandering: not of the mind, but of a conscious whole that embarks from a body in order to complete some journey that is, for the most part, unpredictable. (For the moment, the question of determining what percentage of the mind constitutes “the most part” is a cause for debate between biologists and philosophers). Tired of constructing systems in which every piece has a function, of raging against the historical subject, and bored of philosophies that aspire to bring us news of everything, of referring the world to the spiderweb of linguistics, of inventing countless rebellions and deconstructions, some philosophers have set their sights on conversation as a means of discrete knowledge. (So John Dewey put it, rather energetically, when he claimed that “we don’t need a theory of everything”).

“The world represents itself in language,” as Gadamer wrote in his famous tome Truth and Method. What is certainly true, both for Gadamer and for those once-analytical philosophers since converted, like Rorty, to relativism, is that the essence of philosophy lies in conversation. And what is conversation, after all, but a kind of wandering along the nebulous paths of language?

The Friendship of Strangers

In an essay he penned at the age of ninety-three, Hans-Georg Gadamer wrote: “The only reasonable test of philosophical knowledge, in my view, is to take a conversation to the point where one no longer knows the answers to one’s own questions.” After labouring over so many books—reaching conclusions, contradicting myself, stating and re-stating my principles—it feels wonderful to be without answers, just for a moment; to empty the waste-paper basket of my arguments and set out in search of those liminal questions that aspire to the outer reaches of knowledge. Nothing excites me more than to be asked a question that leaves me utterly confounded, and mute. It’s as if everything starts anew, to be thought over from the beginning: words create new forms, new paths, but now the words have weight again, they are heavy, they have become what they always were. Conversation is a kind of loitering, a wandering from which we never return unaltered, because the soul of words is time; and although our conversations trace circles around our obsessions, they always advance towards some kind of end.

This is precisely how literature makes itself human: by travelling forwards in time, by approaching an end. Contrary to what some might think, wandering is much more than a superficial or non-committal roaming; it is a way of drawing nearer to death, inventing sinuous detours that eventually lead us back to the beginning. It is an awareness of the end, but also proof of a life that is only real insofar as it is fading away. In our conversations, we might wander towards a certain point, tracing routes that we suspect will guide us towards our preferred conclusion. But wandering does not necessarily lead to definitive conclusions. Digressions and accidents along the road might give rise to new discoveries—like a long forgotten bottle of wine, or the realisation that the whole excursion is simply absurd. The act of wandering contains within it the most important of all human values: it reinforces our intuition of the void.

One of our most widely espoused moral edicts declares that people must confront all kinds of obstacles if they hope to achieve their goals. Not only confront, but confront and defeat. Obstacles become a prerequisite for victory, and the hero who overcomes them serves as an inspiration to the common people fighting their battles in the coliseum of everyday life. The ingenuous hero is an appropriate symbol in contemporary society: fully prepared to fulfil the sense of purpose imposed upon him, he gladly throws himself into unnecessary feats of bravery. His hands are tied. He is thus prevented from gaining the one thing that is in the interest of every free man: the ability to think for himself. Here in this apparently “free” world, I get the strange impression that every time someone conquers a mountain summit the human race takes a step backwards. Unlike mountaineers, wanderers are happy to traipse at the foot of the mountain. They don’t seek the summit. They contemplate it from afar: one peak in an entire landscape that is also inhabited by the gaze and the thoughtful glance, a landscape that is the catalyst of life, of poetic art, of being in its most deeply rooted form. Some will argue that, in advanced, complex societies like ours, the kind of behaviour I have just described isn’t sensible; that this simply isn’t the way mankind normally progresses. Nevertheless, is it really so absurd to think that, in opting for the minor path, we might also make unexpected discoveries, even become heroes by mistake? (Pragmatism has had its opportunity, and look around at the world we’ve inherited: democracies without citizens; liberalism without liberty; obscene wealth at the expense of millions). Even in the most conventional realms of science we often come across this duality of character: on the one hand the heroes who, thanks to their passion for method, chip away at new discoveries; on the other, vagabonds of knowledge who, at times, become heroes by mistake. Let’s not forget that the contributions of Kepler and Einstein to the mythology of science were fortuitous events, welcome epiphenomena.

I don't intend to tell a story different from the ones we’ve already heard across every field of human invention. Rather, I will attempt to tell the same stories in my own words. Narrating the same story in other words is an ambitious task, but it is one of the principle obsessions of the writer (an occupation in peril of extinction, I should add). Is it really so absurd to maintain that giving life to a story with my own words—that is to say, creating a singular order—is the same as telling a new or original story? Let's suppose I decide to tell the story of one day in the life of a woman I’m attracted to—something that, in my case, is always probable. I approach this task in the simplest of manners, as if conversing with a friend I’m unusually comfortable around. Days later, I decide to tell the story again, but this time I try to employ words that I consider closer to reality: deeper words. I even throw a few metaphors into the mix, which seem to me to accentuate this sense of reality, or, better yet, to intensify the energy of the story. Then I wonder: do both stories narrate the same facts in different words, or, on the contrary, do they relate two different events? I haven’t the slightest idea, nor do I expect to find out. And this is my point. Philosophers have been unable to come to an agreement on this seemingly simple topic. The most romantic among them maintain that, beneath the words themselves, there lies the terra firma of truth: the face of god, the essence of meaning, the beloved woman. Others argue that this same earth (which, incidentally, is not always solid) is in fact language itself. The former perceive language as a medium, a vessel from which we disembark in paradise (or hell, if you prefer); the latter assure us that language per se, while often surprising, is never transparent—it is impossible to travel beyond language without heading towards mysticism. These two views are irreconcilable. There are those who are willing to allow individuals the capacity for reinventing language and transforming its norms (if indeed those norms even exist), thus giving life to poetics, art and real-life discoveries. Then there are those who believe we are mere administrators in a business we didn’t invent and are barely equipped to modify. How are we to dominate this mountain, they ask, that looms before us with such vast antediluvian gravity? The snail did not invent its shell, and yet it must bear its burden all the same.

What is a conversation? One definition leaps first to my mind: a conversation is a striving for movement. At times we’re not even certain of the direction we want to take. We wait for Godot as we wander a few moments with no precise orientation. After all, Godot will appear where we least expect him. (In fact, he won't appear at all, but we will invent him). Modern merchants and pedagogues assume their words are oriented towards a logical end. Conversation, to their understanding, is a means of putting prizes in their pockets: it is a means of convincing, of trading, of catching fish; in sum, of imposing their “truth” through words. Despite the fact that conversations motivated by a particular interest generally possess grey areas—wordplay, anomalies and the like—they fail to pique my interest. I get the feeling that arrogant human beings are able to dominate the direction of such conversations. This brings us back to the idea of vagrancy or wandering as a form of knowledge. In wandering there is no direction to be dominated, no reaction to be predicted (unless we reduce the human to the cybernetic, or our interlocutor to a carrot). To put it in more dramatic terms: I can never be sure if the person I’m beginning a conversation with will grasp an iota of what I’m saying. The fact that two or more people claim to agree on a theme or topic doesn’t mean they actually agree—they probably just haven’t discussed things long enough. I agree with you because I like you, and because your opinions seem satisfactory to me in light of your evident likeability. Isn’t this the way human relations really proceed? Don’t arguments always follow in the footsteps of attraction? The language that makes a conversation possible is neither a medium of communication nor a mere vehicle that brings us to an agreement. It is, above all, an image of reality, of the vast wilderness of meaning and contradiction. When language is understood in this way, only the most reckless among us would dare to suggest its limitations, or confuse it with a washing machine whose buttons we can push to control the wash cycle.

Since we’re already deep in this cave, let’s go farther. Conversation, in order to become real, requires that the other always be a stranger—even if this other is your neighbour, speaks the same language, or is a reasonable person just like you. Conversation requires the presence of an other, and where possible this other should be a stranger. I first came to this conclusion after reading Franz Kafka’s The Castle. The characters in Kafka’s novel speak to one another so respectfully that they appear convinced not only of the importance of their own words, but also of the fact that there can be no conceivable obstacle to their comprehension. In reality, quite the opposite is true. As futile as buzzing flies, their words weave endless paths in the void. Solemnity conceals the absurdity of everything we do: solemn discourse ensures that the meaning of things does not collapse. If we agree with one another, it is only because we have confused a platypus with a beaver. Indeed, this is what survival is all about: mistaking fish for birds and moving on regardless. Kafka shunned conversation. He claimed he was a quiet man by conviction, not by necessity. It was in his writing that he concentrated all of his abstinence: his aversion to mundane pleasures; his rabid, militant solitude; his asceticism; his suffering; his inertia. All of this renunciation crouches behind his writing. What vast wisdom loiters in that solemnity of style! It could scarcely be any other way: Kafka’s writing summons truth; better yet, it summons the presence of a void that weighs upon us like a mountain. Conversation, in contrast, is subject to the constant influence of exteriority, passing violence, vice. It presumes to deliver itself to a superficial movement that distances us from any kind of happiness: in short, it is a deviation. Nothing that travels beyond the limits of pure writing, then, is capable of bringing us news of death, of the human soul, of anything of value to us. I believe Kafka thought along similar lines: there is only one way to force the void to show its face, and that is to immerse oneself in literature and set mutely, unswervingly, to digging one’s own grave.

Fernando Pessoa, on the other hand, embraces the credo of the Stoic. In his notes, he vehemently rejects the kind of pessimistic poet who proclaims his sadness and elevates his personal grievances to the level of universal art or aesthetics. It is an insult to our intelligence, Pessoa claims, to endure a writer who makes his disillusion public; such displays of pathos are cowardly, a sign of inferiority. The artist is obliged to silence his own tragedy. Is such a thing possible? To feign an occupation free from lesser evils? To stifle carnal pleasures in the pursuit of a higher art? I don’t know, but, on a personal level, I preemptively declare myself a pessimistic coward incapable of hiding his true nature.

Next to writing, conversation seems like such a frivolous pastime. And yet reading is itself a kind of intimate conversation in which the reader attempts to find or invent a meaning in the book’s messages (if indeed there is such a thing as the trafficking of messages). The reader complements the book, and if the reader is not a good conversationalist then the result will be a sudden clash of stones, a graceless collision. “So little happens between two people in a half-hour conversation, above all because so many people have nothing to say.” These are the words of Marguerite Yourcenar, but they might as well be the slogan of our times—these times in which almost nobody is interesting, in which everybody resembles everybody else, all queuing patiently and telling the same story in the same way. Writing, of course, demands an exhausting degree of concentration that cannot reasonably be compared to the pleasant and nebulous diversion of conversation. Yet such comparisons are so often made, if only in vain. How many novels were inspired by a good conversation, or a witticism? In contrast, how many insufferable works of literature were gestated in the solitude of the lone writer? I detest the image of the hermetic genius who dedicates his whole life to his work, bequeathing upon the world a masterpiece in all its dozens of volumes. What is he accusing us of? Why should I deign even to leaf through his magnanimous work? Conversation, in contrast, lacks preciseness of place or moment; it is never at home. Conversation is a current of water in which we may either sink or swim; its one constant is the simulation of movement. Humanity has told itself so many words in order to make itself feel present and important—so many books, encyclopaedias, treaties—that none of us are even remotely capable of imagining the extent to which everything we know is merely a contingent or arbitrary set of ideas. If every philosopher and writer in history has been at least partly correct, then how do we judge the profundity of knowledge of someone who spent their life studying Kant instead of carefully reading the work of Balzac? A recurring boutade in intellectual circles is the affirmation that the whole of contemporary philosophy is nothing but a postscript to the work of Plato. In reality we can never be completely correct, except in the fact that we exist and are able to tell our version of things (this, indeed, is one of the most edifying ways of being in the world: if you exist, then you are already right in some way). And it is only in that other version of the world that we expect to find ourselves with some trace of ourselves, armed with our dissent, approval, criticism, and, above all, indignation. (“How can he think such a thing!” “She has no idea what she’s saying!”)

Let’s suppose I’m prepared to spend years on a piece of writing, be it a novel, essay, academic thesis or philosophical treatise. No matter how meticulous my efforts, they will not necessarily result in a more profound or intelligible work. On the contrary: it is often the briefest speech or conversation that, once transcribed and published, most memorably illuminates the lives of its readers or changes them for the better. Speech, in other words, uproots our flowerpot existences. A simple explanation hides behind this apparent paradox. When we converse, or speak, we are talking to real people, faces that agree with or pay careful attention to the words we dare to make public. And when these words are set down in print, something of that instant of truth in which they were spoken is transmitted to the reader in the form of human solidarity. We listen as we read. To converse is to begin the world again, to stand in a space in the universe that is at once the sum of all possible spaces. The meaning of words is always the same; it proceeds towards the eternal West—just as the German Romantics predicted two centuries ago—towards the perpetual birth, towards one last effort to vanquish the shadow of death that is, also, fertile earth. And so the possibility emerges that writing is in fact the topos of conversation, which, desperate to avoid vanishing into air, insists on leaving some trace of itself. Let me try to put it in less hazy terms: tradition contains us, and writing—which is the hotel where words are lodged—shows us that we are in the world. The best we can do is reaffirm this existence of ours, its fabric always worried by doubt, unease and escaping time.

Writing is like a military deployment: it exposes and imperils itself, risking everything to conquer a physical space. And despite its metaphysical aspects, in the very act of exposing itself—that is, offering itself physically, in words—literature becomes all the more complete; although never, of course, entirely complete. This is where vagrancy (or conversation, including, at its best, writing) makes its appearance. How, precisely? Via a long detour that skirts the question of being, by encircling the void, constructing a small island from which to contemplate the sun or the darkness. The most vital writing is animated by an awareness that we are lost forever. This awareness stirs a wandering, one that, with intrinsically hopeless gait, leads to a real life, to a singular human being. The alternative is too sad to contemplate: a deliberate advance towards a precise end; conversation as a means of procuring certainty, goods, money; hasty speech; false self-importance; vain pontification. All these are nothing more than the mundane corruptions of an unexamined life, confirmation that—as Cioran reminds us—being born is without doubt the greatest inconvenience we shall ever face.

translated from the Spanish by Alice Whitmore