Huidobro and the atmosphere

by craigepplin

This weekend, I’m writing about Vicente Huidobro, specifically his long poem Altazor. The idea is to read this poem “atmospherically,” which is to say in function of its theory of the air. Huidobro has a theory of the atmosphere and its inherence in collective life, and the long fall of the poem’s eponymous protagonist traces that theory.

For years, the best readings of Altazor focused on its linguistic fall into nonsense. René de Costa and José Quiroga penned excellent interpretations of the poem along these lines. But the question that interests me is how the poem’s experimentation with language becomes possible in the first place. In other words, where does it happen? In what sort of space? It happens, I believe, in the air.

I’m drawing on the work of Peter Sloterdijk (lots to read here). The English translation of the first volume of Spheres just came out, and I’m eagerly awaiting its arrival in my mailbox. A section of that long (over 600 pages) book was published by Semiotext(e) a few years back under the title Terror from the Air. I came upon this book accidentally over the summer, and it inspired me to work on Altazor, long one of my favorite poems.

Sloterdijk thinks that modern atmospherics came into being with the use of gas warfare during WWI. By poisoning our most elementary living space, the air itself, the German army ushered in a new era of atmospheric manipulation, whose avatars have been gas chambers, air conditioned buildings, and contemporary weather-based warfare. And what is more, these atmospheric demarcations are the spatial correlate to the modern trope of alienation. Individuality, that is, emerges as the air gets divided up.

Huidobro is attentive to atmospheric divisions in modern times. Altazor’s fall is aided by a parachute, a little envelope of air in the sky. There are blimps and airplanes and hangars. The question for me is whether he remains within the confines of this modern paradigm of individually alienated airspaces, or whether he moves beyond them. I think the latter is true.

Besides Sloterdijk, it also makes sense to draw on the work of Bruno Latour, particularly his Politics of Nature, and also to stage a dialogue with several of the essays in this excellent collection, particularly Christopher Travis’s intervention on ecocriticism. Huidobro has long been read as a sort of would-be demiurge, a lucifer in rebellion against god and the world. Travis (and I concur with him) thinks the situation is more complicated, with Huidobro establishing rather a more fluid, dialectical relationship to nature. I think, in the end, that Altazor is not just a book about the poet’s power of creation, but rather about the airy spaces in which creation, language, and poetry take place, and about how we can live together in such spaces.