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Review: Salvador Elizondo's "El Hipogeo Secreto" and Wittgenstein's Philosophy

Author(s): George R. McMurray

Source: Hispania, Vol. 53, No. 2 (May, 1970), pp. 330-334
Published by: American Association of Teachers of Spanish and Portuguese
Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/338597 .
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Conducted by



Colorado State University
Salvador Elizondo's second and most
recent novelistic endeavor to date is just
as bizarre and intriguing as his first. Born
in Mexico City in 1932, Elizondo initiated
his literary career in 1965 with the publication of Farabeuf o la crdnica de un
instante.' El Hipogeo Secreto (1968), like
its predecessor, weaves philosophic and
linguistic preoccupations into a hazy and
at times almost incomprehensibleplot.2
The characters are a woman called la
Perra (frequently referred to as Mia) and
the membersof a secretorganizationnamed
the Urkreis. These include the authornarrator(Elizondo); an amateurwriter, X.;
H., a geometrician;an elderly architect, E.;
el pseudo-T., who specializes in deciphering ancient writings; and el Sabelotodo,the
leader of the group. The Urkreis' search
for the secrets of human destiny emerges
as the central theme.
The novel consists primarily of several
basic scenes of nightmarishquality repeated
again and again without regard for logical
concepts of time or space. The most frequent of these are: (1) an ancient city in
ruins; (2) a magnificent modem portmetropolis imagined by the architect E.;
(3) an author (Elizondo) writing a book
entitled El Hipogeo Secreto in the same
room with a woman (la Perraor Mia) who
is reading a volume bound in red Morrocan
leather "en el que ese escritorestA descrito
en el acto de escribir este libro." (p. 43);
(4) two men conversing beneath a large
tree; (5) a woman descending a stone stairway to meet a man of unknown identity;
and (6) a photograph of a woman next to
a broken sundial which bears an illegible
inscription. (The last two are set in the
ancient city.) In order to achieve their
* Publishers and authors
may send their books
to Prof. Donald W. Bleznick, Book Review
Editor, Hispania, 352 McMicken Hall, Univ.
of Cincinnati, Cincinnati, Ohio 45221.

goal, the membersof the secretorganization must journeyto a distant "reducto"

guidedby el Sabelotodoafterla Perrasubmits to a vaguely defined "rito"consisting

of her dance as the "Florde Fuego."The

workends with a climacticchainof events
depictingthe vain searchfor the ever elusive "HipogeoSecreto."3
Elizondo'sinterestin twentieth-century
philosophyis principallydue to the connection it has establishedbetween philosophicalproblemsand language,a connection best establishedby the AustrianphilosopherLudwigWittgenstein(1889-1951)
whose TractatusLogico-Philosophicus,
first and only work publishedduring his
lifetime, is the most importantsingle influenceon El HipogeoSecreto.4Tractatus
Logico-Philosophicus(1921) profoundly
affected logical positivism5during the
1930's.Wittgenstein'ssecondand equally
importantwork, PhilosophicalInvestigations (1953), repudiatesmuch of the
Tractatusand begins anew, constitutinga
majorfactorin the rise of linguisticanalysis and semanticsof the 1950'sand 1960's.6
The Tractatusattemptsto define the
function of languageand to establishits
limits by makingclearwhat can and cannot be said.It statesthatlanguagepresents
a pictureof realityby namingobjectsand
depictingfacts. For example:"The watch
is on the table"namestwo objects(watch
and table) and depictsa fact.What makes
the linguistic picture a representationof
what it depictsis a similarityof structure;
the logical form of the statementand the
logicalformof the fact are identical.
Since languagepresentsa logicalpicture
of reality,the limitsof language,thought,
logic and the worldall coincide.Wittgenstein reasons,moreover,that what can be
said can be stated clearly and what we
cannottalk aboutlucidlywe must consign
when an answer
to silence. Furthermore,



cannot be put into words, neither can the

question be formulated, and if a question
can be framed, it is possible to answer it.
It follows then that riddles do not exist
and that metaphysics cannot be discussed
because it attemptsto pass beyond linguistic
boundaries. Wittgenstein eventually abandoned the picture-theoryof language and
pessimistically concluded that there can be
no final analysis to remove all possible risk
of misunderstanding.Therefore philosophy
must begin with the distrust of language.
Of the previously mentioned scenes
which constitute the major portion of El
Hipogeo Secreto the one depicting the
author-narratorwriting a book in the same
room with la Perra serves as the focal point
of the novel. In fact, it soon becomes evident that all the other scenes form a part
of this work-also entitled El Hipogeo
Secreto-and that the entire plot occurs as
the story is being created. All the characters including the narrator (who assumes
several ambiguous identities) and la Perra
(who is reading the book) are obsessed
with the outcome of the work in progress,
referred to as "la representaci6n de un
universo absolutamentegerundial" (p. 95)
whose "final es siempre el momento presente" (p. 124) and in which "se trata de
un Aqui que se desplazasiempre"(p. 155).
Wittgenstein's statements regarding the
limits of language find expression in several passages that explain the characters'
inability to know the denouement. For example, in one scene as the narrator and
la Perra are conversing, "El lenguaje se


Imaginado (one of the author's various

identities) is still writing and senses the
presence of somebody reading over his
shoulder. Suddenly a voice is heard: "la
voz de alguien que da instrucciones suplicantes a un asesino ritual en una ceremonia

-iAhora!.. ." (p. 159).

The readeris led to believe that death
alone might hold the answers to questions
regarding man's destiny.

The word-picturetheoryis anotheraspect of Wittgenstein'sphilosophyset forth

in Elizondo'swork. In the followingpassage the author of El Hipogeo Secreto

relates words he has written with the objects they designate and attempts to evoke
the distant moment in the past when verbal utterances first gave hazy description
("figuraci6nvelada") to reality.

Vuelvo a abrir el cuaderno . . . y veo ante mis

ojos algo que se define aqul como la palabra
ventana y m~isalhi de ventana una franja violicea que se llama cielo y cerca de ventana,
sombra;cuerpo quizais;alli cuadro y aqui, ante
mis ojos: dilbum,en cuyas piginas describoa un
hombre que se esti describiendo . . en el
instante en el que naci6 la palabray en el que
6sta era anterior a su primer proferimiento;ese
momento iinico en la historia del espiritu en
el que la palabrano era sino la verbalizaci6ndel
gesto que es su origen, la figuraci6nvelada de
un universo . .. (pp. 47-48)

The paragraph immediately following

continues the theory that language reflects
reality by demonstrating how words compose images that gradually achieve greater
clarity "conformeel lenguaje se decanta y
se destila,"i.e., as language acquires a logivuelve dhctil y s61o expresa ...
structure similar to that of reality.
que claramente le es propio. Guardan
asi se construye, con palabras, la imagen
silencio acerca de aquello que no se puede deYesa mujer
descendiendo por una escalinata.
expresar claramente"(p. 82). The climax Salvador Elizondo . . . compara la traslaci6n
la disposici6nque tiene una ciumore
and conclusion even
the Austrian philosopher'scontention that dad imaginaria . . . Es una imagen fugaz que
se clarifica
conformeel lenguaje
language has no meaning when applied to se decantapaulatinamente
y se destila. La identidad de esa
mujer se haraiexplicita. Su nombre mismo tiene
citedly orders la Perra to read beyond the un significadooculto que las palabras. . acapresent moment, we learn that the text barain... por aclarar.(p. 48)
A complex novel that lends itself to
"trata de un transito misterioso hacia un
fondo mas bajo de las palabras. Hacia el numerous interpretations,El Hipogeo Secfondo en el que todavia no estAndisociadas reto assumes greater plausibility if one
de la substancia que las hace significativas considersit a fantastic dream which dramacomo representaciones escritas de una tizes Elizondo's inner conflicts as he atrealidad que les es totalmente ajena" (p. tempts to create a work of art whose
157). In the final lines we are told that el literary style accurately reflects his psychic



moods. The basic clash unleashed by the

dream appears to be that between reality
and truth, a striking dichotomy given frequent expression by the two scenes portraying an ancient city in ruins and a
magnificent metropolis envisioned by the
architect E. The former representsan ugly
or timeworn version of reality from which
the true artist must escape, while the latter
is a subjective vision of truth and originality embodied in the ideal of artistic
integrity and perfection. La Perra combines the romantic elements of mystery,
intuition and passion vital to artistic creation (she and the narratorare lovers), and
the scene describing a tree with two men
conversing in its "sombra"evokes the perpetual menace of death. Finally the Urkreis, a select group of individuals whose
diverse professions place them in contact
with different levels of reality, more than
likely representsvarious facets of the author's personality and signifies his intense
feeling of alienation from the social community.
The conflict between reality and truth
becomes apparent not only in the striking
contrast between the ancient and modern
cities but also in the author's style, which
reflects his disturbed psychic state, and in
his portrayal of la Perra. In the following
passage the narratordescribes his warring
sentiments upon finding himself alone in
the crumbling city.
"Yo me qued6 alli, inm6vil, . . . Un sol
de sombra.Asi era el ocaso;una dimensi6n
de la percepci6n mediante la que ese astro
negro, fusiforme, declinaba al final de
aquel sendero polvoriento . . . El sol, el
otro sol temporal, ascendia claramente al
extremo del camino . .. Decidi6 entonces
ir a hablar con X. .. Caminaba entre las
construcciones arruinadas evocando el
suefio de E.... la brisa lijando las columnas caidas: un remedo carcomido, . .. de
un esplendor que s6lo era de las palabras
que expresaban el suefio . . ." (p. 24).
Here the "astronegro" and the "columnas
caidas"clash with the bright "sol temporal"
and the "esplendor"of E.'s dream, while
the change from first to third personal pronouns indicates the narrator'sunremitting
search for identity.

Although la Perra first appears as the

woman reading the same book that Elizondo is writing, her character gradually
takes shape in the author's mind as she
is presented in several scenes amidst the
old city and imagined performing the
"danza de la Flor de Fuego," a beautiful
ceremony symbolizing poetic truth. Or, as
Elizondo writes, "la danza de la Flor de
Fuego revelaba algo mis que giraciones,
. . Llegu- a confundir la danza de la
con las arquitecturasque sofiaba E.
. .." (p. 21).
In his efforts to capture the luminous
moments of ecstasy experienced by the
narrator and la Perra, Elizondo attains
spectacular flights of fantasy, verbal moments analogousto E.'s architecturalvision.
For example, the following passage depicts
the two lovers being transportedby sexual
passion from the city in ruins into E.'s
dream. "Nos sentamos en los rebordes de
un mausoleo derruido .. . El deseo acude
como las hienas a la carrofia . . . te tiendes, infinitamente abierta hacia mi. Te
abres como una bahia sofiada por nuestro
arquitecto E. . . . Te derrumbas de amor
en mis brazos . . . Gritas" (pp. 96-98).
Then, continuing to address la Perra in
highly evocative, metaphoric language, the
narrator looks back and describes this
escape from reality across "el abismo" and
into the ideal world of truth, an escape
effected by words ("caballos viejos") depicting images of historical, geographical,
mathematical, sexual, psychological and
esthetic connotations.
Gritas como gritan los jinetes xirbarosy espoleas las palabrasque presurosame pides que te
diga, como si estas fueran caballos viejos, initiles para doblegar la rectilinea extensi6n de
las estepas interiores; esos galopares 4picos de
nuestra historia universal intima; hordas que te
penetran y te rompen la frontera de todo lo
que eres, la posibilidad limitrofe de todo lo que
hubieras podido ser; el significado de todo lo
que algin dia, cuando los designios secretosque
te han animado, .

se realicen, seris, con toda

la claridad del sol, en mi mirada fija sobre el

abismo, inm6vil yo en la convulsi6n de un
abrazo asf; el abrazo que conduce a un suefio

.. (pp. 98-99)
One might deduce that the novel's protagonists are not only its charactersbut also
its words and that these constitute Elizondo's unique literary style and give sub-

stance to his interpretations of Wittgenstein's philosophy. As noted above, Wittgenstein states in his Tractatus that language depicts reality and that the limits of
language and thought coincide with the
limits of the world. He further reasonsthat
the limits of each individual'slanguage and
thoughts likewise coincide with the limits
of that individual's world. This leads the
philosopher to a discussion of solipsism
which may be defined as the doctrine that
only one's self and one's thoughts exist, visible reality being nothing more than the
product of the imagination.7 In his obsessive preoccupationwith style, Elizondo carries these ideas a step further and, attempting to reduce the world to linguistic principles, suggests that visible reality is false
until given concrete form by words, the
essence of language and art which to him
are more real than reality itself. As the
author of El Hipogeo Secreto explains,
"Concibo el universo como un gran diccionario abrumador y el drama de todos los
dias, ... las sensaciones que sentimos,...
como si no fueran . . . maisque el sentido
que deben tener las palabras" (p. 55).
Words and names give lifeblood to his
characters,"serescuya esencia . . . son las
palabras;esas palabras que jerarquizan las
sensaciones que van precisando como lenguaje" (p. 46). "Casitodos [the characters]
tienen ya un nombre que los materializaen
el orden da la escritura"(p. 58). And la
Perra is "Alguien cuya causa es la escritura . . . como algo que estAsiendo expresado y asi existe" (p. 60).
Other passages, however, convey Elizondo's feelings of frustration upon attempting to paint a precise linguistic picture of reality. For example, on several
occasions the amateur novelist X. displays
a piece of polished amber containing an
insect trappedin flight, an image symbolizing artistic beauty. The author refers to
this image as he reflects on the dissimilarity between "el ser real" and the linguistic structure of one of his word-portraits. "El ser real ?d6nde se esconde?
detrAs de estas palabras, como la
mosca se oculta visiblemente en la traslucidez del Ambar"(p. 56). This remark


would seem to indicate that Elizondo shares

Wittgenstein's ultimate distrust of language, rejecting, as did Wittgenstein, the
theory that words can accurately picture
reality. Moreover,that words fail to synthesize linguistic clarity and esthetic perfection is evidenced by the novel's pessimistic
ending.8 Thus the architect E. gazes at his
ideal city through a window and confesses
it to be an unattainable dream; la Perra
never actually performs her "danza de la
Flor de Fuego"; and, as pointed out previously, the author concurs with Wittgenstein's statements regarding the metaphysical limitations of language. Still, Elizondo's
ability to capture occasional fleeting moments of truth illuminated by poetic brilliance-like the fly which hides "visiblemente en la traslucidezdel Ambar"-makes
words more worthwhile for him than
El Hipogeo Secreto and Farabeuf (Elizondo's first novel) have much in common: strong philosophical overtones, unusual stylistic patterns, and recurring
themes such as love, sadism and death.
The two books are basically different, however, in that Farabeuf deals primarilywith
bodily sensations and El Hipogeo Secreto
with metaphysical ideas. Although in its
entirety this most recent work of Elizondo's
lacks the spellbinding quality of Farabeuf
-probably due to the latter's more diabolical subject matter and more repetitive,
irrationalstyle-El Hipogeo Secreto probes
deeper philosophicalquestions and contains
passages that surpassany in its predecessor
for sheer poetic beauty.
Elizondo's principal objective is the
artistic expression of his innermost
thoughts and dreams in his own unique
terms, an objective which he achieves and
which makes him a part of the increasingly
prevalent trend away from the traditional
concept of the novel in contemporary
Mexico and Latin America. Because of
the concentrated efforts required of his
readers to understand his writings, he is
not widely appreciated. Yet, the fact that
works like Farabeuf and El Hipogeo Secreto are published and recognized as significant attests to the current literary sophistication south of the Rio Grande.
Like Wittgenstein, Elizondo realizes the



limits of language but can conceive of

nothing beyond these limits. Though his
search for truth and his preoccupation
with philosophical and esthetic issues have
caused him to lose sight of immediate
reality, Salvador Elizondo emerges as one
of the most original men of letters writing
in Spanish today.9
iFor a detailed discussion of this work see
George R. McMurray, "Salvador Elizondo's
Farabeuf," Hispania, 50, no. 3 (Sept. 1967):
2El Hipogeo Secreto (Mexico: Joaquin Moritz,
1968). All page references to quotations from
this work will appear in the body of the text.
3"Hipogeo," an ancient architectural term
meaning a grave or a subterranean portion of a
building, here symbolizes man's goal of finding
the answers to metaphysical questions.
40Other possible philosophical influences include Plato, Aristotle, Heraclitus, Descartes,
Condillac, and Sartre.
5Logical positivism holds that man's thoughts
and ideas are dependent on his command of
language. According to this philosophy only
empirical statements are genuine for they alone
can be verified. Metaphysical concepts, on the
other hand, are meaningless for their true value
cannot be ascertained through observation.
61In Philosophical Investigations, Wittgenstein
defines language as a composite of "languagegames" or uses of words in their wide range of
contexts. Although "language-games" are hinted
at on pp. 74, 92-93, and 140-41 of El Hipogeo
Secreto, and although Elizondo's stylistic peculiarities and pessimism may be attributed in part
to ideas formulated in the Austrian philosopher's
second work, this study will confine itself primarily to the influence of the Tractatus which is
far more important and tangible.
7Wittgenstein's discussion of solipsism, which
he neither accepts nor rejects entirely, is somewhat complicated.
8The "Hipogeo Secreto" could also symbolize
the elusive goal of linguistic clarity and esthetic
9The preparation of this study has been
facilitated by a research grant from Colorado
State University.
Cid": Poesia historia, mito. Madrid: Editorial
Gredos, 1969. R6istica. 191 pp.
El la primera parte del presente libro, la cual
comprende tres capitulos, el Prof. Bandera estudia la historicidad y el valor artistico del Poema
de Mio Cid; despubs pasa a examinar el famoso
verso "iDios, qu6 buen vassallo ..
.!" y el
sentimiento religioso de la obra. El analisis de
lo mitico ocupa, a su vez, seis capitulos y el

ap6ndice, esto es, la parte fundamental del trabajo.

En la Introducci6n, el autor se propone demostrar que la poesna y la historia no se excluyen
mutuamente, sino, por el contrario, "el caraicter
hist6rico del Cantar es inseparable de la intuici6n po6tica que hace de e1 una obra de arte
literario" (p. 16). El caricter mitico del Cantar,
inseparable a su vez del valor po6tico y de la
historicidad, consiste para el autor en la fusi6n
de lo tradicional y comunitario con lo intimo y
Ahora bien, lo mitico se cristaliza en el Poema
en el episodio del le6n donde el Cid adquiere
dimensi6n sobrenatural. El autor sefiala que este
le6n, que se inclina ante la grandeza del heroe,
es un le6n moral, pero lo es s6lo por reflejar al
le6n biblico, simbolo de Cristo, tal como aparece
en los bestiarios medievales. Dicho le6n se caracteriza, entre otras cosas, por su vigilancia, su
astucia y por su humildad, cualidades que constituyen tambien las caracteristicas del Cid mitico
seguin el autor. Asi el Cid representaria para el
juglar que le atribuye caricter mesiinico el "reflejo viviente de Cristo, de un Cristo guerrero
y majestitico, fuerte y eternamente vigilante"
(p. 108).
El Prof. Bandera muestra que el caricter
mitico del Cid aparece hasta en el episodio de
Raquel y Vidas, considerado por Castro como
el mis antimitico. El Campeador sorprende y
burla a los judios, victimas de su propia codicia,
gracias a sus cualidades miticas; su astucia, su
sigilo y la urgencia con que realiza sus movimientos. El autor estima que el engafio de los
judios no constituye ninglin lapsus moral del
juglar, sino, por el contrario, subraya le ejemplaridad del h&oe, pues Cristo se vale del mismo engafio en los bestiarios. Las sintomas de la
demitificaci6n se advierten, por otro lado, en la
ceguera del Cid despubs del episodio del le6n,
pues aquf desaparecen su vigilancia y su previsi6n, cualidades esenciales de su caricter mitico.
A pesar de la riqueza de detalles y la erudici6n con que el Prof. Bandera apoya su punto
de vista, no es ficil ver, salvo el episodio del
le6n, que el Poema refleje el caricter mesiainico
del Cid y que su mito sea a su vez reflejo de
los grandes mitos cristianos, esto es, del 6xodo
biblico y de la encarnaci6n. Algo similar ocurre
con su ejemplaridad en la burla hecha a los
judios, ya que el mismo heroe no parece creer
en la ejemplaridad de su acci6n cuando declara:
"V6alo el Criador con todos los sos santos,/
yo m~s non puedo e amidos lo fago" (pp. 9596). Finalmente, aunque admitimos que los infantes de Carri6n son esencialmente c6micos,
nos parecen tambidn monstruosos en su crueldad
al azotar a sus esposas inocentes.
El Prof. Bandera demuestra, a lo largo de su
libro bien escrito, una fina sensibilidad literaria
y un perfecto conocimiento de los problemas en
torno a la critica cidiana. Su trabajo representa,
a nuestro modo de ver, una contribuci6n importante al estudio del Cantar de Mio Cid.

Univ. of Iowa