Previous to Language: a conversation with Ignacio Oliden

Micaela Brinsley

Art: in many cases, most of them, [is] a luxury. People not far away, in Buenos Aires, get up to work at four in the morning; go to bed at twelve o’clock and don’t have time to read a poem or watch a film, write. I’m not one of those that thinks art is always fundamental, or who gasps when someone says they haven’t read Joyce. I respect a lot, those that, not having much else to do, take it. Take the luxury and make it a sword, in that sense. To make the pen a sword, or to make the camera a sword. I try to change things around, to enlarge the sphere. Art is also not a weapon, always. It is there to fill the soul.


Do I need art on a spiritual level? All the time. I don’t know what I would do if I didn’t have books. In another moment of my life, films. But if I imagine not having the habit of reading, it gives me claustrophobia. A lot of times I had to rely on books. On art. I had to. When living in London I went every single day to the National Gallery, because if not, I don’t know…

You don’t necessarily have to theorise in order to feel art. When we have art in front of us, we recognize it. As St. Augustine writes in Confessions: ‘I know what time is, but if I had to explain it, I stop knowing it.’ I don’t think it is necessary to have an intellectual approach to determine if something is art or not. Maybe if you want to clarify a certain point, we need to intellectualise.

If an idea is beautiful in and of itself, it will make its way through language. Beautiful in the sense that it is directed towards a certain feeling. But it's always posterior to the previous feeling, the poetic moment is previous to the object.

The poetry is previous to the language.

I’m just trying to have a good time writing criticism, trying to find a moment of pleasure. Trying to find the answers to my life. I enjoy a lot of artworks which I don’t fully understand, intellectually. Some of Octavio Paz’ ‘Piedra de Sol,’ which I love. There are some poems which I believe, the effort of finding the keys to access their hermetic shell makes the reading more beautiful, more profound. Such as Neruda’s Residencias, the clus troubadours, or Hughes’ Montage of a Dream Deferred, which I’ve been reading very closely during the last couple of months.

I think if you like it, you have understood it emotionally.

[T.S.] Eliot says, ‘the critic’s function is to re-compose the taste of a certain generation.’ I do think that any writer or poet has to be a critic, has to be a translator too; it has that didactic dimension. As I see it, we have about 2,000 years of analysis and we haven’t reached any point of certainty in the arts. I don’t think anyone who takes on this strain of trying to theorise and trying to make sense out of something which is so strange, expects to reach a safe port.

When I write an essay I may speak about ten different works and they are totally secondary to my task, me and its function. But it’s secondary not in the sense of hierarchies but as if one is the result of the other. We may find new relations, draw new comparisons, expand the knowledge on a certain aspect as Pound says, like a biologist, who doesn’t expect to discover a whole new world, a whole new biology.

I believe criticism and art must be part of the same boat, the art boat: it should both assist readers and makers, and, as a result, society as a whole. I really think it is my task to write, to preserve something. When I see something I might spend a month until I realize I should do something with it. Then I spend maybe another month until I write the poem or essay. I am not one of those that say, ‘I’m inspired when I start writing.’ No. ‘The muse came,’ no, that doesn’t happen to me. But sometimes the poetic moment, those moments, which I look for in art, sometimes they come in real life. I try to preserve them: I put them in art and leave them.

To art means to reveal a truth in beauty, or to reveal the beauty in a certain truth. Though I’m always thinking that I have to produce in order to make a living. As we say here: since we are at the dance… let’s dance! It's too late for regret.

                                                                                                                        by Ignacio Oliden


As History and Biography reach the hands of Sarmiento, the fictional genre begins to gain ground, and with it, that 'teleology of the word and of episodes' which Borges mentions in 'El arte narrativo y la magia.’ Sarmiento knew this. In his first big book (which begins with him writing with charcoal in the bathrooms of the Zonda newspaper), he planted the idea to decades later collect it with his last breath, closing with his biography of Dominguito. He reveals to the reader his method, making it clear he merges with his particular mixture life, history, novel, and politics. In this way, without us realizing it, an object is returned to us. An image or event from childhood prefigures a final moment; a father anticipates a son (D. F. S to D. F. S); one book leads to another. The first great Argentine author anticipates the other.

-‘Prefiguración en Sarmiento’ by Ignacio Oliden


'The word ‘interview’ itself, if you break it down… ‘view’ means ‘to look,’ ‘inter’ means ‘back and forth, or between.’ I pause, look at Ignacio, to confirm he’s following my train of thought.

‘So we can think about all the ways that the word applies to what we’re doing right now. We can extend it to the time I’ll be listening to this conversation again, before and while I’m transcribing it. Then when I’m reading the words from a compositional perspective. After that, frustrated by what I forgot to ask you.’ Ignacio laughs as I raise my left eyebrow and say, ‘so all the ways this moment reverberates is welcome. Because I’m more interested in this moment than what it’ll look like.’ I laugh and stop talking, to hear what he has to say.

He then says, ‘Thank you. I do enjoy this moment. Much more, I’m sure, than what I will read.’ We laugh and I look to the side. There’s a silence and we make eye contact, start laughing again. He says, maybe to be encouraging, maybe because he doesn’t know what to say next, ‘because it is myself.’

I nod, acknowledge his point, ‘but I don’t want to think about the article as the thing we’re trying to design. Or to figure out how it can be a copy of you, because it won’t be. But here, we get to see what arrives. Talking is actually the interview. The thing that comes out of it… it’s an indication we looked back and forth.’


'There are writers —Chesterton, Mallarmé, Quevedo, Virgilio— who are not inaccessible to analysis; there is no procedure, no happiness in them that the rhetorician cannot explain, even partially. Others —Joyce, Whitman, Shakespeare— include areas that are refractory to examination. Others, even more mysterious, are not analytically justifiable. There is not one of his [Sarmiento's] sentences, examined, that is not correctable; any man of letters can point out his mistakes; the observations are logical, the original text perhaps is not; however, that incriminated text is very effective, although we do not know why. Our Sarmiento belongs to that category of writers that mere reason cannot explain. The foregoing, of course, does not mean that Sarmiento's idiosyncratic art is less literary than that of others, less purely verbal; it means, as I hinted at the beginning, that it is too complex—or perhaps too simple—for analysis. The virtue of Sarmiento's literature is demonstrated by its effectiveness. Anyone can correct what he has written; no one can match it.'

-Prologue for Recuerdos de Provincia (by Domingo Faustino Sarmiento) by Jorge Luis Borges


We read Sarmiento and believe we are holding a cannonball in our hands. And what is it that makes it so powerful, so sublime? It is that he wrote during the effect of the passions, in a kind of inverted romanticism in which the serene memory of extraordinary passions is not applied, and in which one looks at a landscape, and instead of remembering past times, one projects into the future? Where Sarmiento sees a river, he also sees a canal filled with vessels; where he sees a waterfall he imagines a dam; where there is a plain he imagines a railway running through it. He was impulsive, immediate, and in his immediacy he preserved the fury of someone who doesn't think twice before acting; he had the spontaneity of parliamentary speeches, of improvisations, which can afford to forgo subtlety.

-'Los Viajes de Sarmiento’ by Ignacio Oliden, printed in Todo es Historia, 2020.


IO: I really don't talk about or speak about art or literature. Because I really don't have that kind of encyclopedic memory. I think I only function well when working on a text, when I'm reading or when I'm writing. Or when I'm thinking [out loud] with no one rushing me or expecting me to say something. I hate those ‘knowledge for tables.’

MB: I know what you mean.

IO: I may like whiskey, but I don’t like people to share their knowledge about whiskey around me while I am drinking it. I end up listening to a conversation like Castel, the character of The Tunnel (by Sábato) when people around him pronounce Tolstoy as 'Tolstuá,' and Dostoevsky as 'Dostuavskui.'

MB: I completely agree with… how did you put it?

IO: Table knowledge.

MB: Table knowledge! I think we’re also in a time where there are levels to what topics are acceptable as ‘table knowledge.’ Discussing art deemed ‘problematic’ is in of itself becoming a topic to talk about in this way. I understand the desire to discuss how we can reject what we’ve received as ‘culturally valuable’ if it’s violent or unforgivable in its perspective. I do it all the time. But so many conversations quickly turn to stages where people present themselves as ‘right’ as opposed to diving deeper into whatever work they’re taking issue with.

IO: Yes, I agree. I mean, I think it is necessary to study those texts [that you’re alluding to]. It isn't the same if you study it in an ethics class. But if I didn't read Cortés’ letters, I wouldn't have reached many conclusions regarding the conquest. It is not a cost I am willing to pay. The same as Kipling, or Lugones, or Sarmiento.

MB: Right.

IO: How [else] would I know the Empire if I don’t listen to its speech? It’s a matter of knowing your enemy. And, on top of that, I do enjoy stuff for aesthetic reasons in spite of their authors’ personalities or actions.  If you can't do the exercise of reading critically or dissociating the work and a past action, ‘that's your problem,’ I would say to that person. A short story by Kipling is a document.

If it's normal life, you can dismiss a book. There are lots of books I don’t read because I don’t like them. For instance, I couldn't read Lolita. I don't know what the ideology of Nabokov is, I don't care, I couldn't read it. I read very specific things. I’m not being humble here but I’m a free reader. If I show you my library it doesn't make sense, I have every kind of ideology in there. I won’t pick a book just because I agree with the author’s ideas.

MB: How would you describe your taste?

IO: I really don't know, it depends. In fiction, for example, if I told you easily, I don't like boring stuff, maybe from there comes my predilection for brief texts. I only read what I find fun. There are [also] certain artistic figures which are part of myself. Who I cannot eradicate from my mind, I am already formed by them, in terms of taste or interests. I love history. I take it as a form of narration because if I take it seriously, it is a tragedy.

I dedicated myself last year to reading deeply about the conquest of the Aztecs and the Mayans. You know, every myth we take for granted, like the Aztecs thinking that the Spanish were gods, that the Spanish were 300 men and the Aztecs were 300,000. That all comes from Cortés, writing the letters, whose motivation was the search for wealth and glory. The crown did not send him, he sent himself. Of course there were a lot of other important sources, even from that time, such as the Codices or Sahagún’s work, that may be considered more objective. But the chroniclers wrote with a medieval mentality. Creatures typical of the bestiaries appear, monumental battles, great heroes triumphing in spite of their disadvantage. You can trace Pliny in their description, the Amadís de Gaula in Bernal Díaz del Castillo, The Aeneid in Cortés.

What we take as history was almost [all] created from the reading of fiction, with the influences of fiction. Cortés was building a story with the literary techniques needed to persuade, to generate curiosity or suspense. Firstly, for Carlos V and then for posterity to position himself politically and win favors from the monarch and get rich. Also to create a text that will leave him in history. So he is creating an image for posterity taking Aeneas' example.

These positions are inverted all the time. Narratives [of history] are, I think, a great problem. These movies come from the United States and have a certain ideology which people mistake for biography. Every time I watch a film from the United States and I see a Spanish or an Italian, they’re Catholic, the woman is crazy passionate, they all ride Lamborghinis. An Argentine film critic, Ángel Faretta, says this very easily: ‘Casanovism in sexual matters, Machiavellianism in politics, and Jesuitism in religion.’ Every time. In the Pirates of the Caribbean too, which I love and is very dumb… ‘the Spanish were terrible and the English were the ones who had common sense because they weren’t Catholics.’ It is dumb to think they don't come from a certain country from a certain industry. But they play a big role in creating myths.

I don't think that it is a problem with art. I mean, art is safe, because that is not art.

MB: You used the word ‘boring’ earlier. I’ve enjoyed using it more recently. Not as a way to demean anyone else who may find something interesting, but to articulate when something doesn’t speak to me. So, what often bores you? Or, on the other hand, tends to keep your attention?

IO: Firstly, I agree with the boring thing. It’s a problem, I think, in criticism. They can’t say something is boring because they feel they should say something deeper. [But] boredom is the result of a series of technical elements in structure not functioning correctly. So you can easily say that something is boring ‘BUT, etc… etc… etc…’ or that something is ‘etc… etc… etc… BUT boring.’ For example, with Menéndez Pelayo, who is the father of criticism of Spanish literature, you see it all the time: Well, this plot is boring. This plot does not entertain the audience. This character is predictable so he has some boring moments. Now, you know, it's boring.

I believe one day there will be an ideal cannon, but it is not the one we have. By canon I mean a list of works. I don't know why so many things off of the United States and England appear to me in social media. But every time I see ‘The Best Ten Books,’ ‘The Best Ranking,’ ‘The Best Film,’ ‘New York Times Picks the Ten Best.’ Everything, every time, [when] people think there is something better than something else, it’s terrible. There’s a cost of people thinking that first in the ranking is [always] America, that America has this superiority in film or in literature.

MB: How do you try to encourage people to encounter the art that you find moving?

IO: I try to talk about where I come from, to decentralise. For the rest of the readers and writers to meet our people, in what I write. I try to enlarge the sphere of the world not only in content, but also in concept. For instance, when I talk about an author which I know the reader won't know, I don't say, ‘there's an Argentine author that says this.’ I only say, ‘an author says this.’ As the meme says, ‘it ain’t much, but it’s honest work.’

I try to de-exoticise the writer. I am doing the same they would. Leopaldo Lugones in Spanish is as important as William Butler Yeats in English. Someone wouldn’t say, ‘an Irish author named William Butler Yeats, in one of his poems…’ Of course, I understand, he is better known. It isn’t necessarily a matter of quality in that sense. But it is a way of profiling the author you introduce.

If something lives as a classic, for instance, it shouldn't be necessary to explain it. But you shouldn't have a fear of saying ‘I didn't like it.’ Saying [instead], ‘I like this novel that came out yesterday.’ There's a lot of fear regarding that too. I agree with you that there's an exaggerated respect to certain works. I do it myself, I read more ancient things. I trust in time, the criticism that time does, in that sense.

MB: I like that metric.

IO: I really don't talk about or speak about art or literature because I really don't have that kind of encyclopedic memory. I enjoy bad conversations about not the things in which people think I know.

MB: Say more.

IO: It happens a lot, ‘ohhh, you like poetry,’ and they ask you things. I get nervous. I'm not talking about this situation but it happens a lot, you know? When they expect you to talk or speak about certain things.

MB: Right, as if it means you know everything about it.

IO: Yes, exactly.

MB: Also for you to confirm the things they value about it.

IO: It happens all the time, with film too. ‘Did you like The Joker? You know, it was an amazing thing,’ they tell you. ‘Yes, it was,’ I then say, but I try not to get into that, trying to remark on the things you did, because if not, it may sound offensive. Godard, I liked some of his films, the first ones. But now I think he’s terrible. I was talking the other day with a person about what he understood from the last film of Godard, which was on Netflix. He told me, ‘Hey, it's a matter of feeling.’ Well, yeah, it seems the feeling didn’t reach me. That [kind of thing] happens a lot. The other day I read that the importance of French film was invented by the culture supplement of the New York Times during the Sixties, in order to end with Westerns. I found it very funny.

MB: I think that is very funny.

IO: It would be, again, as in Sábato’s novel, where Castel, the painter, is forced to speak about painting at that same lunch we mentioned [before] and has a terrible time. Also I prefer looking like I maybe know less than I do. I then have a lot more to win than to lose.

MB: Do you enjoy it when people are surprised by what you say?

IO: Yes, I like surprise. I have fun, it is something I learned from Borges. I'm not saying I am wise like him but I distrust people that [only] talk about their expertise.

MB: I see what you're saying.

IO: We're going back to table knowledge, you see?

MB: We've returned!

IO: I like the intensity of extraordinary episodes, extraordinary people, extraordinary feelings. Feelings which I hadn't felt before. I tend to go away from where I am in terms of art. That's one of the reasons I always go back to art. There are a limited amount of events that give you an extraordinary feeling in real life. A sight, or a letter that arrives. Or a call, a voice, a sunset, a great river. I find those experiences every time in art. The same effect I find when, for instance, when I was going through the field, the plains, as I told you yesterday.


while crossing the south plains, i felt i was going through the landscapes of a film by John Ford. i felt i was there and here at the same time. I imagined john Wayne and Julio Argentino Roca (the one who ‘conquered’ the argentine ‘desert’) moving through the space at the same time. And i remembered a poem by borges which deals with this. While sunset. It was beautiful.

-Ignacio Oliden to Micaela Brinsley over Facebook Messenger on January 17th, 2022



Art isn’t a mirror but a pointing finger. It is not expression, but allusion. When I don’t know where to head to when creating, I turn to another discipline. Not as a Plan B, it is always Plan A; it is necessary. I wish I knew about every discipline. Recently I bought a book about biology essays by T.H. Huxley. I intend to read them. I know tomorrow, or the day after tomorrow, it will come back to me when I’m writing about poetry in Buenos Aires.                                    


I agree, whatever you consume exits you filtered through your particular voice. It’s a very direct channel.


Yes, when you’re a reader, you should take every day as your first one. Borges says, ‘I am all the writers I have read, all the people that I have met, all the people I have loved, all the cities I have visited.’ I surely would have been a very different person if I read different literature than what I read. Maybe not in terms of taste, but also some aspects of life were emphasized or enlarged because of my experience of art.


Definitely, though I’ve never liked that phrase, ‘life imitates art and art imitates life.’ I’ve always taken issue with the word ‘imitation,’ it’s not that they’re representing each other. You brought up dance earlier. Art and life are always dancing, woven together, blending. I think you can separate them from each other but at any moment either of them may interrupt and jump into the space of the other. It’s more entangled than relational. Am I making sense?


Yes. Also, I’m an addict of both.

                                                           MICAELA (laughs)

In terms of the different disciplines I also agree with you. I think they’re all basically the same thing but their means of communication is different. The structure is different, so you just follow different routes to the same place.

                                                           (MICAELA laughs.)

I once made a joke to someone that every piece of art is just saying, ‘we’re all lonely, love matters.’

                                                                (Both laugh.)

It was a joke but I also think it’s true.




It’s not that all forms are trying to fit around that feeling. The phrase, those two feelings in it, are both from the same place. So all art is going to end up saying that.


Exactly. I don’t know how one would think that a painter and a poet, from the same street, won’t have some points in common. No one is an extraterrestrial.

                                                           MICAELA (laughs)



In the way I see it, we’re all guided by the same rules of beauty and aesthetics, even in morals. I think they all talk about the same thing, which is our selves.


And all art is composed of a moment before, during or after an experience of change. Which, in some ways, is also true of every moment in life.


Can you give an example?


My parents have a painting on their wall of a river that’s very calm. Light is hitting it in certain places and there are two boats. One has objects in it, one doesn’t. It’s capturing a moment of stillness. But before stillness, there has to be a slowing down of movement. I know the stillness will then be disrupted again. When I look at it, I feel a sense of calm but also, I don’t look at it and expect my calm will be permanent. The river will at some point move again.


I understand what you mean.


I love the generosity of art in that way, that it’s extending a hand for me to join it.




In this thing it’s doing.


I agree. Many times, what I find in art, is the putting on words or colours or forms, something that I felt sometime in my life I didn’t realize or I didn’t expect it. That’s the hand you’re talking about, right? It’s as if your world expanded. When you realize different tones to life. You realize the tree isn’t all green, but maybe sometimes yellow, some parts of the tree are light green, sometimes it’s black because it’s night. That, taken to immaterial terms. Those are the nuances or the mid-notes you learn from art. Maybe poetry for me is trying to find those mid-notes, those tones.



by Ignacio Oliden

El sol a un costado transpira
    en su peñón de árida roca

Las horas en la ruta
    como tragos de licores agrios

Pasamos con un rumor de motores dando
la espalda al peñón
                y al sol
que aun derrama su sangre en estos cielos
    y en estos ríos
a cuyo pie agoniza
un enorme toro lastimado

Río Negro o Rojo, 
lo llaman Cruce del desierto
Mientras tanto nosotros
bajamos hacia el sur


It is there to fill the soul. Art is also not a weapon, always. I try to change things around, to enlarge the sphere. To make the pen a sword, or to make the camera a sword. Take the luxury and make it a sword, in that sense. I respect a lot, those that, not having much else to do, take it. I’m not one of those that thinks art is always fundamental, or who gasps when someone says they haven’t read Joyce. People not far away, in Buenos Aires, get up to work at four in the morning; go to bed at twelve o’clock and don’t have time to read a poem or watch a film, write. Art in many cases, most of them, is a luxury.


Language! Translation! Idiom! Everything depended on the impossibility of living with a language that sprouted from other suns, in other circumstances, in the mouths of hearts oblivious to the vicissitudes that the American suffers: 'another blood, another lineage, another language,’ he [Sarmiento] said in Barcelona, 'I'm finally here, outside of Spain'. And so it was, that with Facundo under his arm he pretended to be independent: he would go to Paris, the Paris of Hugo, of Lamartine, of Voltaire, of Thiers, of Dumas, of Mérimée.

Arriving in France he remembers:

Saltábame el corazón al acercarnos a Tierra, i mis manos recorrían sin meditación los botones del vestido, estirando el fraque, palpando el nudo de la corbata, enderezando los cuellos de la camisa, como cuando el enamorado novel va a presentarse ante las dama. La Rose entra en los docks o bassins (no conozco las palabras castellanas que suplan estos nombres), atraca al borde de madera de los canales, i una innoble turba de criados elegantemente vestidos nos asalta, nos grita, escala el buque por las maromas, nos rodea como moscas, nos apesta con su aliento, se insinúa en nuestras manos i en nuestros bolsillos para depositar una tarjeta con el nombre del hotel que los envía.

[My heart skipped a beat as we approached Earth, and my hands ran thoughtlessly over the buttons, stretching the tailcoat, feeling the knot of the tie, straightening the collars of the shirt, as when the new lover is going to present himself to the lady. The Rose enters the docks or bassins (I don't know the Spanish words that replace these names), docks at the wooden edge of the canals, and an ignoble mob of elegantly dressed servants assaults us, shouts at us, climbs the ship through the ropes; surrounds us like flies, with their stinky breath,  it gets itself into our hands and into our pockets to deposit a card with the name of the hotel that sends it.]

It is the landing on the old continent of an American, dressed up, nervous, with a book under his arm and a continent on his shoulders, assaulted by European flies. He is ready for the counter-conquest. And the book? It's in Spanish, Argentine Spanish. He is going to take it to the Revue des Deux Mondes; they will read it as they can, and if not, let them translate it!

Thus the emancipation will be completed.

-Excerpts from ‘Sarmiento’s Travels: an emancipated gaze’ by Ignacio Oliden for La Piccioletta Barca Magazine

Micaela Brinsley

Micaela Brinsley is one of the co-editors-in-chief of La Piccioletta Barca and editor of interviews, as well as fiction and essays.

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