Tag Archives: Andrea Labinger

Rio de la Plata (Photo credit: Melissa Lunden)

by Inés Fernández Moreno

translated by Andrea G. Labinger                                                

By the sea she still feels young. She doesn’t exactly run, but rather trots briskly, at a pace she’ll be able to maintain without too much effort, covering the entire beach to its northernmost tip, where the rocks begin and it becomes more and more deserted, wilder, and unpopulated:  no people, no umbrellas, no scent of suntan lotion.  She walks, eyes half-closed, trying to preserve that dreaminess brought on by the sea without losing sight of the surf as it hypnotically breaks against the shore – the initial fury of the wave, its fall, the gentle residue of foam – that perfect, inexhaustible spectacle. In spite of everything, or maybe precisely because of the sea, its vastness, her thoughts turn to the fragility of life, to her fifty years and her fear of old age. That past winter she had studiously observed old women, considering possible models, as if senescence were a garment she would soon change into. Because it’s a comfort, she thinks, it might be a comfort to find women who have finally rounded that final curve with elegance and joy, without overdoing their makeup, hair color, or clothing, women who have found their own style, a sign that they’ve remained on good terms with life. Women who still have interests, loves, imagination.  On a daily basis she’s confirmed – in the streets, on the subway, in the plaza or at the movies, standing in line at the bank – that as one advances toward old age, the most common trait is inertness, as well as an unyielding melancholy, a certain expression, eyes dully fixed on the ground, like an anticipation of death.

But every so often, like a rare gem, an old woman appears who pleases her (she’s elated whenever she discovers one of them, imagining for a moment that she can choose). She remembers one she saw walking along Calle Florida, dressed in a dark raincoat, whose bold eyes scrutinized her with the same curiosity with which she stared back, though certainly for different reasons. From the vantage point of that woman’s apparent seventy years, she had thought at the time, her own fifty would seem enviably youthful. She also remembers that Doris Lessing character in Good Neighbors: the languid bubble baths she took, the time she devoted to choosing her silk shirts, her exquisite clothing.

That’s where she finds herself right now. A still-young woman, her senses keenly attuned to the smell of iodine, the fine salt-water mist on her face, the contact of the sand as it yields, crunching softly beneath her feet.

But fifty is also an age when threats lurk. Her dear friend Inés, struggling with cancer. Laura’s sister, with her convulsions. The routine tests, increasingly frequent, increasingly cruel. The horrific specifics of what the damn body is capable of. What were a few wrinkles compared to that?

Then there would be a moment of sense, of awareness. (Death’s practicality, extinguishing all pretensions of beauty, inflicting health concerns, comfortable shoes, loose clothing). A moment of relief when one might finally give up that monotonous, fruitless war against wrinkles or flabbiness, when, one might stand back and look upon youth’s burning desire to please men, to please oneself, with tender indifference. To face the mirror and accept the daily disappointment of no longer seeing that familiar, beloved image, the perplexity and rage of discovering that we’ve been robbed of what had always been our own. (And it was that – that betrayal – which filled women with resentment, the secret source of their malevolence or bitterness). Suppose, then, that the moment had arrived, that she was already mired in old age:  Which old woman would be acceptable to her? Which one would she choose? In the distance she saw someone exercising on the beach. She imagined that the still-blurry image was destined specifically for her. Although she couldn’t distinguish her clearly, she was able to follow the rhythmic sequence of a pair of arms stretching skyward and then reaching forward and down, touching the sand; she thought she could discern a black two-piece swimsuit, and on the woman’s head, a kerchief or a bathing cap. As she drew nearer, she could see that the bathing cap was actually a head of very short, white hair that contrasted with her bronzed complexion. She stopped short. Hadn’t she been looking for an old woman to help her come to terms with life? There she was. The sea had brought her in, like those unexpected objects deposited on the shore by the tide.  How old was her mermaid? Seventy-five? Seventy-eight? Could she possibly be eighty? In any case, she was very old, but she was tall and erect.

She lay down on the sand, about fifty feet away, so that she could watch her more closely. Now the woman was twisting from the waist, swinging her arms from side to side. Yes, it was true, the body, if slender, more and more resembles the corpse it will one day become. The skin, loosened from the bones. And yet, beneath that dry, flaccid skin, the muscles can still retain some elasticity. That’s how she imagined herself: old, but flexible. But most impressive of all was the woman’s determination to exercise alone by the sea, totally unconcerned with what others might think of that aged body. Being her own center. She smiled. And the old woman, with each twist to her right, also revealed a smiling face with pale eyes and an angularity that contained no rancor or melancholy. What could her name be? She imagined something foreign-sounding, an actress’s name like Marlene or Yvonne.

At last Marlene or Yvonne declared the exercise session over, took two or three deep breaths, and bounded into the sea. None of those pitiful, tentative dips that old people take in water up to their knees, no splashing herself with pathetic little handfuls of water on her shoulders, abjuring the joyful play of the waves. No, her elderly foreigner (yes, she’s definitely a foreigner; she must have come to Argentina as a very young girl), frolicked in the sea, tossing about almost like a child. She watched her move, churning foam with her hands, like blades against the water, dipping her head beneath one wave and then another, running forward to mount the waves just as they reached their apex, and then, from behind the break, body-surfing, her face extended toward the sun. Watching the woman was soothing, a balm that drove away her dark thoughts. If only she could negotiate the danger zone between fifty and sixty, she might become an old woman like Marlene. Was it possible to choose? To make a secret pact before that sea and that sky? Her heart leaped. Why did the idea of becoming someone else terrify her so? It meant taking a risk, of course. But what about those shadowy old men and women she had been observing all year long? A cavalcade of horrors. This woman, on the other hand  . . . there was vitality and joy in her. More than that. She must have been beautiful once, with a resilient kind of beauty, capable of retaining a touch of grace till the very end.  Well then, why hesitate? She might not get another chance. She would take her, as one takes a spouse. She would accept any kind of death in exchange for this version of old age. Elated, she watched Marlene emerge from the sea and pause at the water’s edge to arrange her hair in a manner that seemed unique: it might have been her long, elegant hands, that special way she had of lifting them above her head and then forward, first displaying the back and then the palms, and of raising her head at the same time, as in a ceremony, offering her entire body to the sun.  Just like that, she said very quietly, addressing the old woman or perhaps announcing it to the world in general, to its indifference or its cruelty: That’s how I will be. She looked at her with pride, like something she’d just acquired. And with an owner’s unembarrassed eye, she allowed herself to stare at certain details a little more shamelessly. She observed Marlene’s two-piece swimsuit, plastered to her body by the water.  Something was wrong with the ensemble. The consistency of the fabric, its bagginess, the too-high bottoms, or maybe those overly narrow straps . . . Could it be a slightly old-fashioned two-piece swimsuit? Or was it actually underwear? The idea disturbed her. No matter how similar the garments might have been, even if it was just a social convention, who would ever think of going to the beach in a bra and panties? Unaware of her observer’s distress, Marlene headed away from the shore toward the rocks. There was a moment of uncertainty. The sky was no longer such a perfect blue, and a few gusts of wind chilled the air. She discovered a tiny golden spider on her leg. It was as minuscule as a grain of sand, and it determinedly climbed up her thigh, a colossal effort for its size and strength. She thought that if it were ten times larger she would feel terror, rather than that naïve admiration of its minuteness. She picked it up with one finger and deposited it on the sand. Then she rose quickly and began walking in the same direction as Marlene.  Like her Chosen One, she took the sandy path that led to the next beach, avoiding the rocks. She continued following her at a discreet distance, so that she could see her appear and disappear intermittently. Now that she had found her, she was reluctant to let too much space come between them.  Not because she needed more evidence. After all, if Marlene wanted to go swimming in a bra and panties, so what? A swell of pride drove away her initial alarm. How could it possibly matter to Marlene? For a moment she felt undeserving of her; she imagined herself still a little too stupid and slow-witted to understand the independence and humor that might have influenced Marlene’s decision to dress for the beach any way she wanted. And if at that very moment Marlene were to peel off her swimsuit – or whatever it was – behind the rocks and wade naked into the sea, so much the better. She would stand on the highest rock and give her a round of applause.

The voices she heard in the distance startled her from her reverie.

It was Marlene. Her voice! She’d probably run into some acquaintance or friend – a woman like her would have so many – and most likely she was chatting with them. From where she stood, only isolated words or syllables reached her, distorted by the wind. “Hey,” “nooo,” “when?”, “lovely,” “Juan”, or maybe “gone.”

She decided to stop stalking and walk right past Marlene and her friends and be done with it. After all the most important connection between the two of them had already been established. Then she advanced, her eyes on the path so as to avoid the protruding rocks, like the tips of icebergs beneath the sand. After walking a few more yards, she sees her. She’s sitting with her right shoulder resting against a rock. Her long hands gesticulate as she speaks, exclaims, asks and answers spiritedly, as in any normal conversation. Only it’s not a normal conversation, because there’s no one with her. An imaginary conversational partner who must be responding with very few words, just enough for her, Marlene, to become offended and launch a long diatribe that changes from a hissing, threatening tone to a falsetto, culminating in a brief, hard burst of laughter. She walks by without raising her eyes from the ground, although she hears a whistle; surely it’s not directed at her, but rather at Marlene’s imaginary interlocutor, with whom she seems to become more and more irritated, because now she’s shouting at him harshly, and she picks up her pace, it’s not easy with so many stones on the path, but she no longer cares if she gets injured, she’s so desperate to reach the next beach where she’ll be able to trot briskly, almost running, so that old age, already treading on her heels, won’t catch up with her so soon. And so that the solemn pacts she’s made by the sea will dissolve, like foam on dampened sand.

Inés Fernández Moreno, the daughter and granddaughter of renowned poets César and Baldomero Fernández Moreno, respectively, was born in Buenos Aires in 1947.  She graduated from the Facultad de Filosofía y Letras of the Universidad Nacional de Buenos Aires and completed graduate work in Semiotics at the Sorbonne.  Since 2002 she has worked as Creative Director in an Argentine advertising agency.  She currently resides in Buenos Aires, where she organizes and directs literary workshops.

Fernández Moreno has contributed to notable periodicals such as Clarín, La Nación, and Revista Ñ. Among her published titles are the short story collections La vida en la cornisa  (Emecé 1993), Un amor de agua (Alfaguara 1997),  Hombres como médanos (Alfaguara 2003), and Marmara (Alfaguara 2009). Her novels include La última vez que maté a mi madre (Editorial Perfil 1999) and La profesora de español (Alfaguara 2005).  The English translation of her short story “Carne de exportación” (“Argentine Beef,” trans. Andrea G. Labinger) was published in in The Argentina Independent.

She is the winner of many literary awards, including the Primer Premio Municipal de la Ciudad de Buenos Aires for La vida en la cornisa and La última vez que maté a mi madre, as well as the Premio Max Aub and the Premio Hucha de Oro in Spain for her short stories. Inés Fernández Moreno’s work has been translated into several languages and appears in numerous anthologies.

Andrea G. Labinger  specializes in translating Latin American prose fiction.  Among the many authors she has translated are Sabina Berman, Carlos Cerda, Mempo Giardinelli, Ana María Shua, Alicia Steimberg, and Luisa Valenzuela.  Call Me Magdalena, Labinger’s translation of Steimberg’s Cuando digo Magdalena (University of Nebraska Press, 2001) received Honorable Mention in the PEN International-California competition. The Rainforest, her translation of Steimberg’s La selva, and Casablanca and Other Stories, an anthology of Edgar Brau’s short stories, translated in collaboration with Donald and Joanne Yates, were both finalists in the PEN-USA competition for 2007. The Island of Eternal Love, her translation of Cuban novelist Daína Chaviano’s La isla de los amores infinitos, was published by Riverhead/Penguin in 2008.  More recently Labinger has published The Confidantes, a translation of Angelina Muñiz-Huberman’s Las confidentes (Gaon Books, 2009) , Death as a Side Effect, a translation of Ana María Shua’s La muerte como efecto secundario (University of Nebraska Press, 2010), and Ángela Pradelli’s Friends of Mine (Latin American Literary Review Press, 2012). Forthcoming titles include Shua’s The Weight of Temptation (University of Nebraska Press) and Liliana Heker’s The End of the Story (Biblioasis). Please visit Andrea’s website at:


Kandinsky's "Composition 8"

By Angelina Muñiz-Huberman

Translated from Spanish by Andrea Labinger

One way of reviving the arts and humanities in general, especially in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, has been to update ancient myths. Orpheus will always be a central figure: a touchstone. The ambiguity of his legend, its philosophical meaning, its poetic symbolism, its interconnection with various art forms, the underlying life-love-death metaphor, and the voyage to the infernal and occult are just a few elements of its interpretive possibilities.

Orpheus is present in the world of creative spirituality. He is a recurrent motif in painting, sculpture, music, opera, dance, poetry, the novel, film, and theater.

With the advent of Romanticism and the avant-garde movements of the early twentieth century, the theme is revived as a source of infinite variation. It is related to innovative esthetics, as in the poetry of Rilke, the painting of Kandinsky and Paul Klee, the music of Debussy, Schönberg, and Alban Berg; and Laban’s theory of dance. In literature it remains a constant motif: to offer just one contemporary example, it is the guiding principle in the work of Canadian writer Robertson Davies. In dance, there is Lina Bausch’s outstanding choreography Orpheus and Euyidice by Glück.

Orpheus’s Sentence

As long as Orpheus’s legacy exists in the arts, there will be a contradiction. His descent to the underworld meant nothing because there was no rebuilding. Orpheus did not rescue Eurydice, and his sentence was to create the song of despair. As his act was essentially useless, he had no choice but to dedicate himself to the consecration of art in all its fragility

The legend of Orpheus alludes to an instant when time stands still, a time when error and loss might still be reversed. It is, furthermore, the moment of decision, the moment when the canticle that must not be desecrated emerges. It relates to the theme of deliberate sacrifice. Even beforehand, Orpheus senses that he will not recover Eurydice: his soul’s voyage will be in vain. The price of his impatience is solitude for the rest of his life. He will practice his art at the edge of silence, while his followers multiply. If it was sight that caused him to lose the realm of love, it will be through hearing that he acquires the realm of order. Creating order from music will allow him to imagine Eurydice’s presence before him.  He receives the sign of the revelation and abandons an anticipated behavior.  Then he leaves logic behind.  The lines of drawing, melody, and poetry intersect, setting each other free.

Orpheus advances from darkness into light. His penetration into the shadows is a sign that hope awaits. It is the sign of birth. The delicate resonance of a melody is heard after his first dream, before sunrise. And it is heard when the realm of death already lies behind him and dawn is about to break. His pact with the gods has been shattered, and all that remains are the creative forces themselves: the poet, the musician will understand that revelation comes from within and its sign is luminosity unveiled.

Those who follow the Orphic path will be marked by a mystical sort of art, the kind that passes tests and is presented naked, deliberate, and liberated. It aspires to deep stylistic concentration: to a selection of governing principles carried out in Esthetics. But the first rule is an intimate, ethical commitment to artistic sincerity. One might say that it is an art of the arts. An art of arts followed only by those creators who are tested by rejection, by perseverance in their convictions and the acceptance of the halo that marks them.

Orphism is related to other philosophical theories, like those of Pythagoras, in which the union of music and numbers reflects a metaphysical abstraction. Time and space are images of the number. Art is desire and will as expressed in time and space, and its primordial feature is rhythm.  Dance, music, and poetry drift through time: they struggle to capture an eternal moment, an eternal place. Their ephemerality is proof of their nostalgia.

Orpheus and the Word

The word on Orpheus’s lips acquires dimensions of the unpredictable, the arbitrary, the unexpected. It distorts logic and thus makes us feel uneasy. It meets with Aristotle’s rejection and Plato’s indecision. But it is Plato who sentences the poet and assigns him his distinguishing mark, a mark that will become an onus over the centuries. The moment of liberation arrived with the acceptance of the desacralization theory, the notion that in art all transgressions are admissible.  Canons were dismantled, and now Orpheus returns rebellious and ready to unleash the Furies . Laws were broken, and the result was the discovery of new fields of limitless creativity.

The twentieth century artist was annoyed by law and order, mental prisons, tiresome repetitions, stagnant concepts. He returned to the Orphic myth, lost in time and mystery, for inspiration. From that moment on, the representation of reality ceased to be imperative and other perspectives, new sounds and colors, other rhythms and sensations, took precedence.  Only those arts that were anchored in totalitarian ideologies, like communism and fascism, which tend to be conservative and fearful of innovation, opposed these winds of change. But the new winds would shake and refresh all trees that were ready to bear fruit. Nothing could stop them, and the paths leading to forbidden worlds, far from sinking into obscurity, began to emit light.

From time immemorial, the word has been given to those who risked descent in search of an inferno that was no longer fearsome, but loved. Marcel Proust pledged his work to a quest for lost love. Virginia Woolf became enmeshed in the ambiguity of her passions and the proximity to madness. James Joyce employed the inferno of the word, to untangle it and convert and contort it into what would become modernity. Because in the word and its musicality resides the key to Orpheus’s lyre.

Music and Other Art Forms

The return to unity lies dormant in nineteenth century art theory. It was believed that the various disciplines could be explained universally. Abbé Lacuria (1808-1890), in his book Les harmonies de l’être, exprimées par les nombres (The Harmonies of Being, As Explained by Numbers), presents the synthesis of the arts from a Pythagorean perspective. The concepts of being and nothingness use the numerical series to define creation. God himself, in order to establish distance between his being and nothingness, resorts to a mathematical comparison. The principle of duality sets the basic rule. Each concept and its opposite aspires to its own harmony. In a later work, Lacuria, the first theoretical interpreter of Beethoven’s symphonies, uses hermeneutics to explain his ideas. The nine symphonies represent the composer’s process of spiritual ascent. They may be compared to the nine rungs of a ladder. The first rung is empty because Beethoven’s Symphony No.1 is a continuation of the style of Mozart and Haydn. The second rung announces the birth of the Sun. The third, under the sign of Mars, is draped in a mantle of tears. In the fourth, the Sun shines brightly. The fifth is shadowed by a cloud, while the Moon emerges, framed by six stars. The sixth rung, corresponding to the Pastoral Symphony, is surrounded by a rose bush and crowned by a Sun. The seventh and eighth rungs are compared to lightning bolts among the clouds; while in the ninth, the lightning denotes glory and reveals the celestial vision achieved (Godwin 129ff).

To his Pythagorean knowledge, Abbé Lacuria adds another common element of his era:  a fascination with Egyptology. He compares Beethoven to a sphinx in the desert, one whose mysteries we will never be able to decipher.

These mystical currents have very ancient roots in Western thought. The so-called Orphic Hymns belong to this tradition, with the advent of Neo-Platonism they acquire force.  In The Republic, Plato sanctifies the study of harmony. During the Middle Ages, musica speculativa was considered part of the study of philosophy. This term included music theory and its principles, while praxis was omitted. It was based on an esoteric approach together with ideas taken from theosophy, hermeticism, alchemy, and Cabala, along with the Orphic-Pythagorean tradition. Topics of investigation included the harmony of the angelic orders, the music of the spheres or planets, the zodiac, the elements, body and soul, hidden connections in nature, the secrets of numbers, the power of sound, and the moral responsibility such power confers.

According to Abbé Lacuria’s theory, the School of Chartres (twelfth century) is an example of interest in such studies. Three centuries later Marsilius Ficinus, Cabalistic scholar and translator of Plato and of the Corpus Hermeticum, revives the Orphic tradition and attributes music with magical and sacred character.

In Elizabethan England, Robert Fludd applies these principles in his works, affirming that planetary movements are related to certain musical tones, in accordance with Hellenistic tradition. If Descartes tends to deny hermeticism, Leibniz might be said to employ it in a figurative sense, and his mention of the harmony of the universe may be a metaphor. His notion of the clave universalis established a way of knowing that transcends the apparent reality of things in search of a hidden reality that might be its true essence (Rossi 15-20).

In contrast, the case of Isaac Newton is the most explicit insofar as the theory of arts and the doctrine of correspondences are concerned. He attempted to pair colors with musical sounds.  Although his initial framework consisted of five colors (red, yellow, green, blue, and violet), he added two more (orange and indigo) in order to “divide the image of the spectrum into parts more elegantly proportioned to one another” (Godwin 10). In this way he established a parallel with the seven musical notes, in which the “proportions” of the colors are the equivalent of the intervals in the key of D. Thus, Newton linked the Pythagorean concept of the harmony of the spheres to music and color as a universal whole.

Subsequently, the Symbolist poets went a step farther in experimenting with the idea that the vowels have certain characteristic colors associated with them, as Rimbaud suggested (A=black, E=white, I=red, O=blue, U=green). Equally well known is Rubén Darío’s poem, “Sinfonía en gris mayor” (Symphony in Gray Major, in Prosas profanas).

From the rise of Romanticism in the  nineteenth century until the beginning of the twentieth there is a resurgence of the theory that music has an essential role as a path to knowledge, independent of its artistic, expressive, and communicative character.

It is in France where the ancient philosophers are once again studied in relationship to Orphism, Pythagorism, and Neo-Platonism. The phenomenon appears not only in music, but also, notably, in literature. Authors like Gérard de Nerval, Georges Sand, Honoré de Balzac, Victor Hugo, and poets such as Baudelaire, Rimbaud and Mallarmé are drawn to sources from the so-called occult sciences: alchemy, Cabala, spiritualism, and mystical experiences, together with the mythical figure of Orpheus. In some cases, drugs play a part in the process of creative transcendence.

These tendencies influenced not only Romanticism, but also later movements like Symbolism, Surrealism, and the avant-garde in general. In cinema, the influence is striking in German Expressionist films like Paul Wegener and Henrik Galeen’s The Golem, the first version of which dates from 1914, and a second, more widely recognized version in 1920. Years later, in 1950, Jean Cocteau directs Orpheus, with extraordinary performances by María Casares and Jean Marais. In 1958 the Brazilian film Black Orpheus, directed by Marcel Camus, recreates the Neo-Platonic theme under apparently very different, but still impactful, circumstances.

Similarly, the legacy can be detected in operas like Glück’s Orpheus and Eurydice, which remains in the repertoire. Other Orpheus-obsessed musicians include Telemann, Monteverdi, Serafino dall’Aquilano, Marco Cara, Bartolomeo Tromboncino, Filippo de Lurano, Michele Pesenti, Angelo Poliziano, and in the nineteenth century, Franz Liszt , all under the aegis of Orpheus.

In The Lyre of Orpheus, the final novel of his series The Cornish Trilogy, Canadian writer Robertson Davies recreates the myth yet again. Beginning with E.T.A. Hoffman’s epigraph about the Orphic lyre that “opens the door to the underworld” (Davies 739), we are made aware of the powerful magic of music as an element of pure abstraction. “Surely it is in the mind that we humans truly live . . . the mind, which is not the creature of the clock but of those moving planets and that vast universe whose mysteries are still, in the main, unknown to us  . . .” (Davies 991). Once more, the theory of correspondences makes its appearance. We continue to listen to the music of the Orphic-Pythagorean spheres.

In the academic world there is also a descent to the infernos when scholars such as Frances Antonia Yates or Gershom Scholem take on the investigation of the occult sciences, hermeticism, alchemy, and Cabala as sources of knowledge.

Satie and Debussy

In the new world of perception that is revived by ancient traditions, two musicians, Erik Satie (1866-1925) and Claude Debussy (1862-1918) expound their esthetic theories based on knowledge of forgotten sources. The former, affiliated with the Rosicrucians and considered to be the order’s official composer, combined legendary themes with innovative musical concepts that departed from Impressionism in favor of a simpler melodic line. In so doing he attempted to reveal the occult world of symbolic meanings through a musical language stripped of all excess and directed toward the expression of the essential.  The latter, also associated with occultist ideas and the figure of Orpheus, served as his guide. Fauns, tritons, sylphs, and water nymphs inhabit Debussy’s music, giving rise to a harmonic blend of the known and the unknown in which tradition comes face to face with the new, emerging tonality. His music emphasizes the use of short phrases, unusual chords, and emphasis on the timbre of the instruments as opposed to their orchestral function. Further, his friendship with poets like Verlaine and Baudelaire sustains him in his quest for tone and structure. And finally, the influence of Impressionist painting leads him to consider his music as part of the same current.  One must not forget that the Impressionist painter M. Baschet made an extraordinary portrait of the musician.

Speculative Music and Modernity

The Orphic-Pythagorean influence reached unprecedented extremes with certain early twentieth-century French theorists. Wagner was enthroned as “officiating for God before the mystery and symbols” (Emile Bernard, qtd. Godwin 199), only to be deposed after the outbreak of World War I. Other approaches related music to Egyptology and Cabalistic interpretations.  A system of correspondences with other arts was established, and musical notes became tinged with color. Despite his arbitrariness, Paul Gauguin, a friend of speculative art advocate Emile Bernard, was familiar with the latter’s theories and, under his influence, devised harmonic equivalents for the colors of the spectrum. However, these speculative theories remained practically unknown. Their most notorious aspect, perhaps, might be the idea that the universe is a mirror that reflects the meditative efforts of the human mind and, as such, joins the various art forms in a unifying totality. The ancient ideal of reuniting the arts once more in an indissoluble whole is inherent to these theories. Thus Orpheus’s yearning for music as the great master of both divine wisdom and human understanding are brought together: a meeting point between numbers and emotion. In another field, modern physics, I will mention only that its questions also pursue an interpretation of the paradoxes of our universe. 

Theodor W. Adorno and Alban Berg

It is interesting to note that Theodor W. Adorno, one of the great twentieth century thinkers, was a highly knowledgeable conisseur and music critic, a pianist and composer who belonged to Schönberg’s circle and who studied under Alban Berg.

The influence of music on Adorno’s literary style and philosophical concepts was fundamental. He chose Alban Berg as his model, analyzing his entire oeuvre. He himself confesses that there is an intersection between his intellectual development and Alban Berg’s approach to composition. He admits that his deepest desire is to develop a prose similar to the way in which Berg elaborated his String Quartet Opus 3. He considers the work of his master and friend as “coming from another planet” while at the same time including the nostalgic power of memory. Berg’s Violin Concerto impresses him as being the appropriate way to esthetically resolve the integration of a Carinthian folk song with dodecaphonism. For another philosopher, María Zambrano, the concerto “originates from the set of notes within the range of the instrument for which it is written. Orpheus’s lament must have resounded in the fundamental notes of the human voice in the purest, simplest mathematical form: the sacred first number of the canticle” (Zambrano 110).  In his analysis of Alban Berg’s work, Adorno was also guided by his auditory skills, thus enabling him to perpetuate the teachings of Orpheus.

Paul Klee and Vassily Kandinsky

Orphic-Pythagorean principles can be applied to painting, as well. We might say that Paul Klee’s painting adopts a rhythmic foundation among its postulates. The concept of balance is reflected in the elements he chooses:  horizon, scale, tower, and arrow are all outlined in a world structured according to chromatic harmony.  Thus, the capacity for choice in artistic matters merges opposites. In the artist’s words: “Thought is the father of the arrow: how can I increase my range over this river, this lake, that mountain? The ideological capacity of man to penetrate earthly and supernatural spaces at random – in contrast to his physical prostration – is the origin of human tragedy. This combat between power and prostration implies the whole discord of human existence. Half winged, half imprisoned – that is man” (n.pag.).

The same lament as that of Orpheus, who cannot reconcile desire with reality and thus loses any territory gained.

For Vassily Kandinsky, art is the quest for spiritual perfection. The various elements must combine into a harmonious whole, despite being antithetical:

“Perhaps with envy and with a mournful sympathy we listen to the music of Mozart. It acts as a welcome pause in the turmoil of our inner life, as a consolation and as a hope, but we hear it as the echo of something from another age long past and fundamentally strange. The strife of colors, the sense of the balance we have lost, tottering principles, unexpected assaults, great questions, apparently useless striving, storm and tempest, broken chains, antitheses and contradictions – these make up our harmony. The composition arising from this harmony is a mingling of color and drawing, each with its separate existence, but each blended into a common life, which is called a picture by the force of internal necessity” (Kandinsky 65-66).

Once more, the arts intertwine and absorb one another’s vocabulary in their desire for mystical union.

Rudolf Laban and Choreosophy

Steeped in Neo-Platonic theory and hermetic art, Rudolf Laban, an innovator in the field of dance, introduces an original concept at the beginning of the twentieth century: choreosophy. He is concerned above all with emphasizing the wisdom derived from dance, a return to nature, spiritual values, the reconciliation of opposites, integration of different human abilities, and the recognition of dance as a cultural, ethical, and educational value.

In creating choresophy, Laban takes into account the correspondences and analogies between the various art forms, such as movement and the emotions, music and dance. He is especially interested in creating works of total art, for which reason he may be considered as another example of a drive toward “universal art.” As Miriam Huberman has indicated, choreosophy combines musical, philosophical, esthetic, mythological, and occultist concepts in dance form. It proposes a means of initiation that seeks to return to the original sources.

Thus, contemporary art could not be explained without the Orphic legacy, perhaps because it is an art that attempts to disentangle itself from bindings and narrowness, an art that not only denies, but also rejects Aristotelian patterns and aspires to a complete liberation of the imprisoned spirit.

Works Cited

Davies, Robertson. “The Lyre of Orpheus.” The Cornish Trilogy.New York: Penguin, 1992.

Godwin, Jocelyn. Music and the Occult. Rochester: University of Rochester Press, 1995.

Huberman, Miriam. “Rudolf Laban and the Concept of Choreosophy.”  MA Thesis. Laban Center for Movement and Dance, London 1990.

Kandinsky, Vassily. Concerning the Spiritual in Art and Painting in Particular.The Documents of Modern Art. Vol. 5. Trans. Francis Golffing, Michael Harrison, and Ferdinand Ostertag. New York: George Wittenborn, 1970.

Klee, Paul.  Pedagogical Sketchbook, trans. Sibyl Peech. New York: Nierendorf Gallery, 1944.

Rossi, Paolo. Clavis universalis: El arte de la memoria y la lógica combinatoria de Lulio a Leibniz. México DF: Fondo de Cultura Económica:, 1989.

Zambrano. María. El hombre y lo divino.  México DF: Fondo de Cultura Económica, 1986.


Angelina Muñiz-Huberman (Hyères, France, 1936) has lived in Mexico since 1942. She teaches at the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM) and is a guest lecturer at international universities. She is the author of 40 books of fiction, poetry and essays. Some of her literary themes are Jewish mysticism and Cryptojudaism.  Her work has been awarded with major prizes and translated into various languages. Some of her titles published in English are:Enclosed GardenThe Confidantes, and A Mystical Journey.  She is included in The Oxford Book of Jewish Stories;With Signs & Wonders; The Scroll and The Cross; The Schocken Book of Modern Sephardic Literature; Miriam´s Daughter, Jewish Latin American Poets, among other anthologies. At present Angelina Muñiz-Huberman holds a fellowship from the National Endowment for the Culture and the Arts (Mexico).

Andrea G. Labinger  specializes in translating Latin American prose fiction.  Among the many authors she has translated are Sabina Berman, Carlos Cerda, Mempo Giardinelli, Ana María Shua, Alicia Steimberg, and Luisa Valenzuela.  Call Me Magdalena, Labinger’s translation of Steimberg’s Cuando digo Magdalena (University of Nebraska Press, 2001) received Honorable Mention in the PEN International-California competition. The Rainforest, her translation of Steimberg’s La selva, and Casablanca and Other Stories, an anthology of Edgar Brau’s short stories, translated in collaboration with Donald and Joanne Yates, were both finalists in the PEN-USA competition for 2007.The Island of Eternal Love, her translation of Cuban novelist Daína Chaviano’s La isla de los amores infinitos, was published by Riverhead/Penguin in 2008.  More recently Labinger has published The Confidantes, a translation of Angelina Muñiz-Huberman’s Las confidentes (Gaon Books, 2009) and Death as a Side Effect, a translation of Ana María Shua’s La muerte como efecto secundario (University of Nebraska Press, 2010), Forthcoming titles include Shua’s The Weight of Temptation (University of Nebraska Press) and Liliana Heker’s The End of the Story (Biblioasis). Please visit Andrea’s website at:

By Angelina Muñiz-Huberman

Translated from Spanish by Andrea Labinger

At one time, things reached such a point that I decided to stop on a street corner and never cross again. I was amazed. My body didn’t obey the mental order to keep walking. I was filled with panic: not because I had to cross the street in front of row upon row of cars of all shapes and colors, despite the reassurance of the green light that I could do it without risk, but rather because my mind accepted my body´s immobility and I couldn’t take a single step. At my side, the other people who, like me, had respectfully waited for the light to turn green were already halfway across. By my calculations, it would be impossible to catch up with them and seek protection among them. I couldn’t do it by myself, even if I ran and got it over with. I decided to wait for the green light to change, wait through the next red, and take advantage of the very first moment the light turned green again, crossing immediately. Of course, that might not happen so quickly, either. If a car came by too fast, it might not brake in time, and it would jump the red light and run me over. It’s better to wait for the green to stay on for a while before crossing. But it’s hard to figure out just how long that while is. If I wait too long, I’ll start to worry again about whether there’s time to do it.

"Olinda," etching by Colleen Corradi Brannigan

This thing about having to cross streets is a real dilemma. Between action and inaction. It reflects my own hesitancy: I can never decide anything in an immediate, definitive way. And if I do, I’m filled with self-doubt: Am I abandoning my old self? The one I’m so fond of and accustomed to? The one who’s so dear and affectionate and comfortable to me? No, no. It’s a hundred times better to keep vacillating.

When I´m feeling Freudian, even though I´ve never been psychoanalyzed (in this regard, I´m pure), I say to myself: Cherchez l´enfance. There must be something, something in my childhood that keeps me from crossing streets. My parents weren’t experts at crossing streets. When I was a little girl, I´d walk between the two of them, with my right hand in my mother´s left, and my left hand in my father´s right. And so we’d all cross together, bravely. Wedged between both of them, I could hardly notice what was going on with the movement of the cars. I trusted them, and that was that. In fact, I even tried not to see what was going on, and consequently I have no experience. No suffering, either. There were no traffic lights during my childhood so I had to learn later in life what the colors represented. Red: stop. Green: go. That fearsome yellow (because it can be ignored): warning. The only thing we had during my childhood was a desperate red lantern that a policeman would wave on every corner, only at night (and especially if it was raining), not to stop traffic, but to move it along. That is, so the cars could keep moving in both directions. The pedestrian had no possibility whatsoever of finding out when it was his turn. Therefore: he could never cross. Umbrellas popped open, and people waited.

That must have been my apprenticeship: waiting and waiting in the rain. And getting all the colors mixed up, because whenever the policeman took pity on the pedestrians (or whenever there were so many

of them that they started to become a nuisance), he would indicate, with an agitated, impatient wave of his red lantern, that they could cross. For me, red means I can cross the street, from corner to corner, under the flaming red protection of the law-enforcement authorities. Later, with modernization, traffic lights were installed throughout the city: at first, somewhat timidly — only at major intersections where there was heavy traffic – and later, with great boldness, at every corner. Thus, walking became a spasmodic ritual of stopping and waiting, crossing and running, with the consequent improvement of sight and hearing. Nearsighted or color-blind folks had to correct their defects and take pains to see better. Seeing-eye dogs had to learn the meaning of a tall pole with three lights that blinked on and off. They did learn, and now they help the blind cross. Sometimes I´ve thought to myself, ‘What if I bought a seeing-eye dog?’ I just might do it. Then I could cross in peace.

Sometimes I feel embarrassed when people watch me and notice how panicky I am. But, who could be watching me? Crossing is so complicated that each pedestrian has to take care of himself. As far as the drivers of cars and trucks are concerned, they don’t waste any time on pedestrian types. And so neither one of those groups is about to stop and observe me. That´s one of my problems: I always feel like I’m being watched. A huge eye is watchful of all my movements. I´ve got to be extremely careful not to disappoint that huge eye.

I pretend I´m not interested in crossing. I could be waiting for something or someone, right? It might be the predetermined location of a date. But what if I´ve been stood up? What will everyone else think? Although it´s almost better if they think I´ve been stood up instead of discovering I´m afraid to cross the street.

There´s one more detail I must confess: I´m from the country. From a little town in the mountains. Before I came to the city, I didn’t even know what a street was. A road, yes, but even that was very far away. And there, for sure, anyone crossing was more than likely to get run over and killed. The association between asphalt and death is binding.

Well, now. The light’s turned red again. I can’t cross. I´ll go over to the newspaper stand and read the headlines. But just a few. The green’s going to come on right away. There. It’s green now. But, what if there’s not enough time? I don’t think I´ll have time. Better wait a while longer. I could also go down to the middle of the block, where there’s a space between the cars, and cross there. By the time I get there, it’ll be too late, and other cars will have caught up with me.

What I ought to do is wait until midnight, or six in the morning, to cross. I could wait till Sunday, and in that case, I wouldn’t have to get up so early, and at 8:00 AM I could cross. Of course, if I’m going to buy food, the stores won’t be open. I´ll have to wait for them to open. But it doesn’t matter. Meanwhile, I´ll think about street-crossing strategies. When I come out of the store, the traffic will be frightful, so I´ll just walk around the block until midnight. Buying two oranges, a pear, and a banana could mean watching the sunrise and sunset from the same corner, by merely turning my body. Nevertheless, I´ve got to take care of myself. That´s why I do it.

And why do I have to take care of myself? Who says I have to? The huge eye watching over me? Or my parents, who wouldn’t want anything bad to happen to me?

Ever since I was a little girl, my parents overprotected me. Of all their children, I was the only survivor. They all died, run over by cars. What? Run over? Yes, yes! Run over. One after another. Of course. Now I can explain everything: that´s the cause of my panic (then Freud was right, even though I´ve never experienced it in the flesh). (I have the idea that the huge eye is Freud. If Freud were still alive, would he show me how to cross the street?).

Yes, my parents overprotected me when I was little. I never went out into the street alone; I was always between them, like a prisoner flanked by two policemen. If we had been run over, we’d all have died together. Whenever we traveled by car, they stuck me in between them as well, and a powerful arm from each one of them automatically shot

forward to stop my body if the car came to a sudden halt. Protection was one thing I didn’t lack.

Ever since then, traveling by car has made me suspicious. Instead of being run over, the car I was traveling in might have hit another one. In any event, it was a question of a violent death. It seems I couldn’t escape.

These ostentatious deaths flashed before me with complete clarity and influenced one of the strategies I devised, as the hours went by, before the prospect of crossing the street. And what was that strategy? It was terrific: to hail a taxi to take me to the opposite sidewalk. But, in light of the possibility of a crash, my right hand, the one I use when I want to signal a taxi to pull up by my side, became paralyzed.

In short, I realize my situation is complicated.

Of course, now that I´m thinking about it, if I take a taxi to cross the street, I can do it only if the light is green, which means that it’s red in the other direction, and the cars aren´t moving. But an accident´s an accident, and what if one of the cars runs the red light and hits mine?

I´ll have to find another solution. This one’s no good.

In order to keep justifying what the hell I´m doing on this street without crossing it, I decide to buy a magazine at the newspaper stand, and I start reading it. I amuse myself this way for a while, and time flies. I start to feel hungry. I discover there’s a vendor selling cucumbers and jicamas with chile. I go over to him and buy some. It’s very tasty. This gives me courage. Maybe now I can cross the street. Now I feel thirsty. Yes, the vendor also has sodas. I buy one from him. Delicious. I really am enjoying this excursion out on the street. If it weren’t for having to cross over to the other side, I’d turn around and go back home. That’s enough for today.

No. I have to be brave. I’ve got to die somehow. If I shoot out as soon as the next green light appears, I´ll have time to cross. But what if I slip? Well, no problem, I´ll just get up and keep running. And what if I’m too panicky to get up? It’s true, I should be prudent. I don’t think I´m going to cross.

But, how can I give up? There’s the red again. This is becoming a never-ending story. Red, green, red, green, and yellow in between. The lights are changing faster and faster. The light must be broken. I´m right: it’s dangerous to cross the street. More than likely, I´ll make up my mind to walk and suddenly the light will turn red, and I´ll get run over immediately.

It´s a nightmare. I´ve got no other choice but to connect with someone. But, who? Because it can’t be just anybody. I have to choose the person with whom I´m going to cross the street very carefully. It has to be someone who doesn´t suspect what´s going on with me. The bad part is that when people cross the street, they do it one after another; they don´t line up side by side or stand too close together. Unless they know one another or are friends, or a couple, or kids. Old people don’t do that, either, because, even if they’re a couple, there’s always one of them walking in front of the other. If I moved up to stand next to someone, he’d get offended, or he’d be annoyed. Why am I stealing his walking space? The space that escapes from a pedestrian with every step belongs to him, as long as he still has his foot in it. I’d be regarded as an intruder, a person who doesn´t know the rules, the rules of transit.

The idea of connecting with someone is no good, either. Of course, if I pretend to act rashly, why should I give a hoot what other people think? I´ll just go up to someone and say, ‘Excuse me, I´m afraid to cross the street. I´m a crossophobic. Don’t take this the wrong way, but, can I do it with you?’ He’d be completely taken aback and he wouldn´t refuse. Meanwhile, we’d have wasted precious time, and the green would be about to change again. Another failed attempt.

Is it possible I´ll never cross this street? I´ve done it before. What´s wrong with me today? What is this? Drops are falling. Great, just what we needed — it’s raining! The traffic will go berserk. The lights will get messed up. Cars will skid on the newly-wet asphalt. What a disaster! It’ll be the end of the world. I´ve got to protect myself. I´ll take refuge under this overhang as long as the rain lasts. I can´t even go back home: I´d get drenched to the skin.

What bad luck I have! It’s best never to leave home. The newspaper vendor has closed up his stand, and as far as the cucumber and jicama vendor is concerned, I didn’t notice when he left, but he’s not there anymore. It’s starting to get dark. The rain is letting up. And here I am, in the same place. I haven’t had a chance to cross the street. Things are conspiring against me. Why won’t they let me cross? Why do drivers have the right-of-way over pedestrians?

I can’t think of what else to try in order to cross the street. Because it’s not my fault: I´ve tried everything. I´ve been standing here, on this corner, all day long. Really, all day. It’s not only dark out, it’s cold, too. When I left the house this morning, it was hot and I didn’t put on a sweater or a jacket. Besides, it was just going to be for a moment. I’m shivering. I feel sick. Two choices: either I dash out without thinking about it, no matter if the light is red or green, or I turn around and go back into my house. This never happened to me before. At least not before my parents died — run over, as well, in keeping with the family tradition.

I´ve just realized something: I miss my parents. I always used to cross the street in between the two of them, with my right hand in my mother´s left and my left hand in my father’s right.

I´ll never cross the street.

“I´ll Never Cross the Street” is a short story included in Angelina Muñiz-Huberman’s The Confidantes, published by Gaon Books.


Angelina Muñiz-Huberman (Hyères, France, 1936) has lived in Mexico since 1942. She teaches at the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM) and is a guest lecturer at international universities. She is the author of 40 books of fiction, poetry and essays. Some of her literary themes are Jewish mysticism and Cryptojudaism.  Her work has been awarded with major prizes and translated into various languages. Some of her titles published in English are: Enclosed Garden, The Confidantes, and A Mystical Journey.  She is included in The Oxford Book of Jewish Stories; With Signs & Wonders; The Scroll and The Cross; The Schocken Book of Modern Sephardic Literature; Miriam´s Daughter, Jewish Latin American Poets, among other anthologies. At present Angelina Muñiz-Huberman holds a fellowship from the National Endowment for the Culture and the Arts (Mexico).

Andrea G. Labinger is Professor of Spanish Emerita at the University of La Verne. Labinger specializes in translating Latin American prose fiction.  Among the many authors she has translated are Sabina Berman, Carlos Cerda, Mempo Giardinelli, Ana María Shua, Alicia Steimberg, and Luisa Valenzuela.  Call Me Magdalena, Labinger’s translation of Steimberg’s Cuando digo Magdalena (University of Nebraska Press, 2001), received Honorable Mention in the PEN International-California competition. The Rainforest, her translation of Steimberg’s La selva, and Casablanca and Other Stories, an anthology of Edgar Brau’s short stories, translated in collaboration with Donald and Joanne Yates, were both finalists in the PEN-USA competition for 2007.The Island of Eternal Love, her translation of Cuban novelist Daína Chaviano’s La isla de los amores infinitos, was published by Riverhead/Penguin in 2008.  More recently Labinger has published The Confidantes, a translation of Angelina Muñiz-Huberman’s Las confidentes (Gaon Books, 2009) and Death as a Side Effect, a translation of Ana María Shua’s La muerte como efecto secundario (University of Nebraska Press, 2010). Please visit Andrea’s website at: