Meaningful lives: Pablo Neruda – enriching our capability to appreciate the beauty in life
What can we learn about good living from Pablo Neruda, the greatest Latin American poet? Reading his autobiography I argue that at least for me the most important lesson is about learning to embrace the richness and beauty of life. From the way he depicts his life-story one can’t fail to see that here is a person who finds tremendous beauty in whatever he happens to encounter. Be it some person he meets or a snail shell he finds on a beach, Neruda is able to have his eyes open wide enough to capture the beauty that is inherent in it. When Neruda let his passion run free ”everything is seen in its best light, everything has value, everything deserves to be the subject of a poem”, as Strand so aptly puts it in the New Yorker. To let the poet speak for himself, here is Neruda getting ecstatic about a stamp album:
Album of perfect stamps!
sea shapes, corollas,
dark eyes, moist and
round as grapes,
in search of
distant pleasures, forgotten
of all earth’s
of the wind,
fruits and territories,
on its treasure,
Neruda’s autobiography starts with an exalted description of the Chilean forest. He describes its small details and smells, how ”the wild scent of the laurel, the dark scent of the boldo herb, enter my nostrils and flood my whole being.” In describing his encounters with nature words such as ”euphoric”, ”fascination” and ”miracle” are lined one after the other. He exclaims that if one wants to understand himself and his poetry one must understand where he came from; how he and the land were united: ”I have come out of that landscape, that mud, that silence, to roam, to go singing through the world.”
Neruda extended the same enthusiasm that nature received also to the people he met. The book is filled with small odes to the greatness of certain poets, artists and politicians that Neruda had the honor of crossing paths with. As only one example, in describing his late friend and colleague Paul Eluard (in a section entitled ’Eluard the Magnificent’) he closes with the following words: ”Tower of France, brother! I lean over your closed eyes, they will go on giving me the light and the greatness, the simplicity and the honesty, the goodness and naturalness you sowed on earth.” I stopped counting how many times Neruda exclaimed how – sometimes after a brief meeting – he and someone he met became dear friends for lifetime.
All in all, his autobiography itself is not a chronological recounting of the major points of his life but rather a collection of small stories and snapshots from here and there along the path he walked. Small moments of beauty, encounters filled with wonder, tiny bits that make human life so beautiful. I guess that this was the only way a person like Neruda could write his memoirs.
Reading Neruda I feel myself to be an engineer cursed with the gift of ’concentrating on the essentials’; only taking into account the facts that matter and ignoring everything else. This might be an effective strategy when one wants to build a bridge or an airplane. But living one’s life in a way where all the unnecessary stuff is extracted out will miss out so much beauty in the world. Concentrating on the important facts might lead one effectively from one place to another. But life itself is not so much about getting from A to B than it is about enjoying the trip itself. And in here, embracement rather than ignorance of detail is the recipe.
What is thus the most standing legacy of Neruda’s life is the way he reminds all of us how beautiful even the small details of life can be – if we just watch them with eyes wide open. As Mark Strand writes: ”There is something about Neruda—about the way he glorifies experience, about the spontaneity and directness of his passion—that sets him apart from other poets.” The best way to make one’s life experience more aesthetic is to understand that richness of observation is as much the feature of the eye as it is a feature of the world. When we learn to look at the world in the right way, we can find beauty even in a plastic bag.
Neruda found his gift of appreciating the beauty of life early on: ”Along endless beaches or thicketed hills, a communion was started between my spirit – that is, my poetry – and the loneliest land in the world. This was many years ago, but that communion, that revelation, that pact with the wilderness, is still a part of my life.” We should make the same pact with the world promising to remain open for the beauty of it all to flow in. We should enrich our lives through embracing the inherent beauty of the world.
I’ll let the master himself close this post, describing how he felt when he wrote his very first poem:
And I, tiny being,
drunk with the great starry
likeness, image of
felt myself a pure part
of the abyss.
I wheeled with the stars.
My heart broke loose with the wind.
[In these ’meaningful lives’ – posts I will take a look at the lives of various interesting persons and explore what lessons we can learn from them in terms of living a good and meaningful life.]
Here is a short biography of Pablo Neruda for those of you interested in what else he did in his life other than getting excited about various stuff:
Son of a train driver, Pablo Neruda was born 1904 in the town of Parral in Chile. His mother died soon after his birth but his fathers new wive (with whom the father had had an extramarital child 8 years before) became the mother-figure of his youth. Despite his fathers opposition to his poetic interests Neruda found his calling early on in life, publishing poetry already at the age of thirteen. When he came of age he already had devoted himself full-time for poetry and had made some name in the field. His youthful years were spent in bohemian, poor and poetic circles in Santiago. Quite much the lifestyle one could expect from a poet.
After serving as a honorary consulate for Chile in remote places such as Burma and Ceylon – where he ”mired in isolation and loneliness” – from the age of twenty-three to twenty-eight the Spanish civil war in 1936 was a turning point in his life. Being in Spain at the moment he experienced closely the horrors of the war and many people he knew died – especially touching was the killing of his good friend and colleague Federico Garcia Lorca. Neruda became politically involved for the rest of his life fighting with pen against different tyrannic regimes that were oppressing the poor people in Latin America and other parts of the world. He saw that as a poet his duty is to be the spokesperson of the ordinary people, take part in their struggle for justice. This involvement lead him for example in 1948 to have to escape Chile on a horseback through the Andes when the oppressive regime of his home country wanted to imprison him.
In 1971 he received the Nobel prize in literature and two years later he died. A peculiar fact about his autobiography is that, although he gives vivid descriptions of some of his love affairs and praises widely the friends he made, he devotes very marginal space to discuss his three wives. Same applies to his one child whom he didn’t apparently see at all after his divorce from the first wive when the child was only two years old. Perhaps he couldn’t extend his gift of marveling at the world to family life?
Final note: Thanks for the article in New Yorker for the two pieces of poetry that were quoted here. First was translated by Margaret Sayers Peden and the second by Alastair Reid.