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The Material and the Spiritual: The Virgen and Pablo Neruda

Anne Dalke's picture
Last Friday was La Festividad de la Inmaculada Concepción . It was a national holiday. The road to Santiago (the capital city), from Valparaiso (where we are staying) was closed for the day, because Lo Vásquez, which is dedicated to the Virgin, and is one of the major pilgrimage sites in this area, was on that highway. Jeff and I joined some 600,000 faithful in a pilgrimage to Lo Vásquez. Many of them crawled into the church on their knees. We were in the group walking in standing up—until Jeff realized that we were probably in line for communion, and got out fast.

What was by far most interesting in this excursion was the tight relationship between the secular and the sacred. There were permanent signs to the “bazaar in the sanctuary," where you could buy icons. For this festival, across the street from the church, an immense marketplace had also been set up on the highway, stretched out for as far as you could see (or walk). It was filled with all kinds of imaginable objects. This seemed to be the main reason the highway had shut down. Once the Catholic church embedded the spiritual in the material, and began to sell the material as a way to the spiritual….

(this Quaker thinks), the marketplace was in the church. What happened outside was simply an extension.

These thoughts about the relationship between the material and the spiritual received further elaboration on Saturday, when we visited Pablo Neruda´s house in Isla Negra, and again on Sunday, when we visited another of his houses, La Sebastiana, in Valparaíso.

As advertised, both these houses were magical places, filled with all sorts of whimsical objects. Neruda collected figureheads and shells, masks and ships in bottles (also something else I´d never seen before: crucifixes in bottles), butterflies and vases and plates and glass in all sorts of wonderful colors. Both houses had wonderful, wonderful views of the sea,out of many large windows (I came upon a fragment from a lovely poem about this, by Neruda, called “Una Casa en la Arena”):

El Oceano Pacífico The Pacific Ocean;
se saliá del mapa! was running off the map!
No había dondé ponerlo. There was no place to put it.
Era tan grande, It was so large,
desordenado y azul disordered and blue
que no cabiá en ninguna parte. that it would not fit anywhere.
Pore so lo dejaron frete a mi ventana. This is why they left it in front of my window.

But as I wandered my way, astonished, in front of these windows, and bemused, through this catalogue of objects (thinking about the possible neurosis involved in such an extensive collection) I found myself wondering about where the ideas were in such things. Many of Neruda´s poems (which are very Whitman-like) are lists: there are celebrated odes to stews and other dishes, to all sorts of material objects (there´s even an "Ode to Things"). But where was the move beyond list-making and cataloguing, where the newness in unique combinations of things that had never before been juxtaposed?

The other very striking similarity between these two houses was their boat-like character. They are filled with tight passageways, arched ceilings, portholes. And yet the windows @ Isla Negra don´t open. They are portals to astonishing vistas. But there´s no sound of the sea. No smell of the sea. No touch of the wind of the sea.

The very strong sense of closure in both houses suggested something profoundly human to me. I myself am a person of many fears and many hopes, of many anxieties and many expectations. I was wondering through the houses of Neruda, so expansive in their vistas of the sea, so NOT open to the other sensory experiences that would come with exploring that open space. And I felt as though I was in an archetypal dream space: longing for openness, but closed off from it, drawn to the expanse, but deeply afraid of exploring it.