The Role of Time in Pablo Neruda's Alturas de Macchu Picchu

Citation metadata

Author: Dieter Saalman
Date: Winter 1977
From: Romance Notes(Vol. 18, Issue 2)
Reprint In: Poetry Criticism(Vol. 64)
Document Type: Critical essay
Length: 3,181 words

Document controls

Main content

Full Text: 

[(essay date winter 1977) In the following essay, Saalman examines the metaphysics of time presented in The Heights of Macchu Picchu, comparing it with that of T. S. Eliot's Four Quartets.]

Pablo Neruda's Alturas de Macchu Picchu represents one of the numerous examples in modern literature dealing with the metaphysics of time. In this respect Robert Pring-Mill in his introduction to Nathaniel Tarn's English translation of the Alturas points to a striking similarity between the temporal concepts espoused in Neruda's epic and T. S. Eliot's Four Quartets.1 "Time present and time past are both perhaps present in future time, and time future contained in time past."2 It is according to this notion that the Chilean poet laureate conceives his experience in the Peruvian highlands of that which constitutes the essence of life. In turning his attention to the "muertos de un solo abismo"3 to discover authentic being, "una vida de piedra después de tantas vidas" (OC [Obras completas] I, 341), he subscribes to the motto "sube a nacer conmigo, hermano" (OC I, 347) thereby destroying the moment of death, that brief interval which separates inauthentic living from the undivided existence beyond the confines of time. In resurrecting the spirit that animated the "esclavos" which at a specific point in time dwelt in the mountain retreat, the poet is able to surmount the fixation in time imposed by historical circumstance. He succeeds in liberating the quintessential qualities of the former inhabitants from their temporal limitations while experiencing their attributes as a personal revelation and, by the same token, making them accessible to present and future generations. Time, therefore, becomes "unredeemable," to quote Eliot, "if all time is eternally present" (CP [Collected Poems 1902-1962], p. 175), i.e. if past, present, and future merge into an omniscient mind. Then and only then the temporal divisions cease to exist given the fact that "time past and future time what might have been and what has been point to one end, which is always present" (CP, p. 176). This idea of time, the attempt to remove the need for its "redemption" awakens in Neruda the desire to transform the historical moment to which "el antiguo ser, servidor, el dormido ... un cuerpo, mil cuerpos, un hombre, mil mujeres" (OC I, 346) belong, into a span of timeless infinity:

Deja que el tiempo cumpla su estatura
en su salón de manantiales rotos,
Ven a mi propio ser, al alba mía,
hasta las soledades coronadas.
El reino muerto vive todavía.

The spatial ascent toward Macchu Picchu and the simultaneous backward movement within the historical perspective, "desde la altura hasta el final del tiempo" (OC I, 341), in the rarified atmosphere of this Nerudian 'magic mountain' culminate in that point where there is, as Eliot expresses it, "neither arrest nor movement ... neither descent nor decline" (CP, p. 177), the instant in which the poet discovers the answer to his searching question: "Tiempo en el tiempo," i.e., chronological time as an alien notion foisted by man upon eternal time, "el hombre, dónde estuvo?" (OC I, 345). The answer lies beyond the "tela de materia radiante," it is "el viejo corazón del olvidado" which Neruda describes as "un ave mil años prisionera ..." (OC I, 346). The apotheosis of his experience on the mountain can be compared to Eliot's "Erhebung," i.e., exaltation "without motion, concentration without elimination ..." (CP, p. 178). Such consciousness man owes to history or, to place the historical aspect in a wider context, to the reconstituting power of memory, "for liberation--not less of love but expanding of love beyond desire, and so liberation from the future as well as the past. ... History may be servitude, history may be freedom" (CP, p. 205). Such is the basic intent of Neruda's journey to the citadel of the Incas. The "madrépora del tiempo sumergido" (OC I, 344), a symbol of psychological time submerged in timelessness, serves as the catalyst of a metamorphosis by means of the word which transforms "history as servitude," i.e. the erecting of the monument at the expense of those who sacrificed their lives in performing their duty, into "history as freedom" by invoking the presence of the builders of Macchu Picchu in the final section. "The time of death" which for Eliot is every moment "... shall fructify in the lives of others" (CP, p. 197). Neruda's entire effort has thus been directed toward releasing the liberating forces of history in the absolute sense of tearing down the falls of time thereby transcending the historical accident which gave birth to Macchu Picchu and raising the history of the Incas to the level of the saga of the entire South American humanity from its inception past the present into an all-encompassing consciousness "del tiempo subterráneo":

Macchu Picchu ...
Devuélveme el esclavo que enterraste!
Dame la mano desde la profunda
zona de tu dolor diseminado.
A través de la tierra juntad todos
los silenciosos labios derramados
y desde el fondo habladme toda esta larga noche,
como si yo estuviera con vosotros anclado,
contadme todo ...
y dejadme llorar, horas, días, años,
edades ciegas, siglos estelares.

By plunging "la mano turbulenta y dulce en lo más genital de lo terrestre" (OC I, 335) the Chilean displays that "consciousness of the past" which for Eliot is the distinctive mark of the true poet.4 In surrendering his personality to a poetic invocation of the "viejos dolores enterrados" (OC I, p. 347) Neruda undergoes a process of "depersonalization" (SE [Selected Essays 1917-1932], p. 7) which reduces the role of the poet to that of a mere "medium," (SE, pp. 7 und 9) an impersonal spokesman for the vanished craftsmen of the Inca fortress: "Yo vengo a hablar por vuestra boca muerta" (OC I, p. 347). Such is the nature of Eliot's theory of an "impersonal" poetry, his conception of the poet "set ... among the dead," (SE, p. 4) in "the present moment of the past" (SE, p. 11) continually renouncing in an act of "selflessness and self-surrender" (CP, p. 198) his own impure feelings in favor of those "significant" emotions (SE, p. 11) which originate in the poem itself, for Neruda in the very poetic substance that is Macchu Picchu. Like Eliot in The Dry Salvages the Chilean is made to realize that the sufferings of the preceding generations have a more permanent value than the individual observer's own petty agonies. Penetrating "behind the assurance of recorded history ... the torment of others remains" for him "an experience unqualified, unworn by subsequent attrition" (CP, p. 195). In view of the foregoing the Alturas can truly be regarded as a genuine embodiment of Eliot's credo that "poetry is not a turning loose of emotion, but an escape from emotion; ... not the expression of personality, but an escape from personality" (SE, p. 10), a fact borne out by Neruda's concluding exhortation in acting as the official mouthpiece for the former inhabitants of the citadel:

Acudid a mis venas y a mi boca.
Hablad por mis palabras y mi sangre.

The author thus confronts the archaeological wonder of Peru as living testimony of his own past--"sentí que yo mismo había trabajado allí en alguna etapa lejana cavando surcos, alisando peñascos"5--having an immediate bearing on the present as well as the future and, by implication, heralding the possibility of forging the intermingling time currents into a unified realm. As Eliot expresses it:

Here the impossible union
Of spheres of existence is actual,
Here the past and future
Are conquered, and reconciled,
(CP, p. 199)

Consequently, the landscape of lamentation that is "antigua América, novia sumergida" (OC I, 346) bestows a new sense of confidence in mankind and a rekindled feeling of dignity upon the poet:

... una permanencia de piedra y de palabra:
la ciudad como un vaso se levantó en las manos
de todos, vivos, muertos, callados, sostenidos
de tanta muerte, un muro, de tanta vida un golpe
de pétalos de piedra: ...
el alto sitio de la aurora humana.

In conjuring up the vision of those who left their indelible imprint on Machu Picchu and in perpetuating their presence by means of the poetic expression, Neruda endowes their heritage with an enduring configuration. For according to Eliot it is "only by the form, the pattern" (CP, p. 180) that their essence can be rescued from "the aspect of time caught in the form of limitation between un-being and being" (CP, p. 181). Their 'Sein' guaranteed through the ever-lasting qualities of the 'logos' is the equivalent of "coexistence," "the end precedes the beginning, and the end and the beginning were always there before the beginning and after the end. And all is always" (CP, p. 180). Descending toward the very heart of "la rosa permanente, la morada" (OC I, 341) which is defined in the Oda al edificio as "la rosa colectiva ... el edificio de todos los hombres" (OC I, 1049),6 the poet perceives the "footfalls" that "echo in the memory" of Eliot (CP, p. 175). Unlike the latter, however, he does not fail to unlock "the door ... into the rose-garden" of those vanished scenes and faces which emerge as a spiritual transfiguration of their former being. By establishing an intellectual communion between himself and the minds of the deceased and by speaking on their behalf Neruda portrays a cyclical notion of existence inasmuch as he is "born with the dead" (Ibid., p. 208). Hence every poem of his represents, in Eliot's words, "an end and a beginning ... an epitaph" as well as the promise of a new dawn of life. (Ibid.)

Death has, therefore, lost its traditionally frightening aspect. For the Chilean, "un poeta más cerca de la muerte que de la filosofía,"7 the affirmation of life and the acceptance of death coincide to the extent that death is considered an indispensable complement to life. Neruda's own confession in regard to his sojourn in the Peruvian Andes throws a most revealing light on the existential significance of the Inca fortress when he states: "En la soledad de las ruinas la muerte no puede apartarse de los pensamientos."8 He firmly adheres to the view that death must be incorporated into man's intellectual universe as a positive step toward mankind's spiritual renewal, as evinced in the following passage from Viajes:

Hay una sola enfermedad que mata, y ésa es la vida. Hay un solo paso, y es el camino hacia la muerte. ... Si al nacer empezamos a morir ... si la vida misma es una etapa patética de la muerte ... no integramos la muerte en nuestra cotidiana existencia, no somos parte perpetua de la muerte, ¿no somos lo más audaz, lo que ya salió de la muerte? ... Si ya hemos muerto, si venimos de la profunda crisis, perderemos el temor de la muerte. Si el paso más grande de la muerte es el nacer, el paso menor de la vida es el morir.9

Such interdependence of life and death promulgated with persuasive conviction is an absolute prerequisite for the realization of Eliot's dictum that "history may be freedom," or liberation from the superficial straitjacket of external events:

The inner freedom from the practical desire,
The release from action and suffering, release from the inner
And the outer compulsion ...

Death now assumes the characteristics of a historical phenomenon in the sense that the recognition of the truly timeless nature of death is equated with man's ability to restore the essential continuity of historical phenomena thereby transcending the observer's own temporal fixation. The 'search of absolute time lost,' the experience of a "vendaval sostenido en la vertiente" (OC I, 344) bereaves history of its empirical context, of its life-death dichotomy and accentuates its non-temporal qualities with death as an everpresent reality. It is in these quintessential attributes that Neruda finds the "dirección del tiempo," its substance laid bare. (Ibid.)

To the extent that only its eternal verities are retained by the poet, the duration of history as a succession of fundamental truths is preserved. This, in turn, assures the continuum of human existence as an uninterrupted endeavour to find the noumenal behind the representational. Thus Neruda sees in the recollection of things past the only guarantee of the unity and perpetuity of man's self and, coincidentally, of the society of which he forms a part. Although he engages in an effort to break out of his own "fixity" (CP, p. 177) in a given historical situation through a return to the past, he nevertheless regards the degree to which a poet is able to convey the spirit of his age as the very basis of his obligation to humanity. In this respect, Eliot's attitude toward time and history illustrates quite convincingly the stance taken by the Chilean:

This historical sense, which is a sense of the timeless as well as of the temporal and of the timeless and of the temporal together, is what makes a writer traditional. And it is at the same time what makes a writer most acutely conscious of his place in time, of his own contemporaneity(SE, p. 4)

It is true that Neruda reaches "the still point of the turning world" (CP, p. 177)," the point of intersection of the timeless with time" which Eliot defines as "an occupation for the saint" (CP, p. 198). But Neruda manages to escape the dubious distinction of becoming patron saint of timelessness for its own sake by fusing the moments of personal and historical experience into a new vision of the human race. "A people without history is not redeemed from time," asserts Eliot, "for history is a pattern of timeless moments" (CP, p. 208). As far as the South American is concerned, the conventional antithesis of the temporary versus the permanent has thus been resolved in favor of the ineffable properties of historical time. These enduring characteristics survive beyond the "trascendente medida" in the "hipotenusa de áspera sangre y cilicio" (OC I, 346) embodied in the right angle of each rock in its sublime beauty pointing toward that propitious constellation in human history when the "dos líneas paralelas, la cuna del relámpago y del hombre se mecían en un viento de espinas," i.e., the two lineages of permanence and transitoriness are fused into a timeless condition of eternal presence: "Este fué la morada, éste es el sitio" (OC I, 339).

Completely aware of and fully responsible to the needs of society, Neruda identifies his poetic vocation with the fate of the Latin American nations in a very tangible sense. He sees his own destiny as well as that of the peoples of his continent inextricably bound to the notion of time in recognition of the fact that for him as for Eliot "time the destroyer is time the preserver" (CP, p. 195), because "only in time can the moment in the rose-garden" of Macchu Picchu "be remembered" forever (CP, p. 178). Even if he succeeds quite admirably in objectifying the Marxist ideological bias of his work largely on account of the expressive power of his poetic language, the basic social intentions of the Alturas characterize it nevertheless as an 'ouvre' whose prime purpose is to serve in a very immediate way the human community, in whose fertile historical soil the roots of the epic are ineradicably embedded. History for Pablo Neruda is now and South America10--"esa inmensidad de América que es Macchu Picchu"11--since it is "only through time" that "time is conquered," as Eliot acknowledges in the Four Quartets (CP, p. 178), only through an active search for the lasting values of the temporal can the fleeting and deadly nature of time be overcome. In celebrating the "cabeza sumergida" (OC I, 343) Neruda at the same time magnifies existence as being sustained by the closely intertwined dual fountainheads of life and death which together assure authentic being. If man is able to detemporalize time, at least for a brief moment of epiphanal revelation, death becomes devoid of its mortal attributes, and both time and death submerge in a consciousness expanding beyond the limits of the heightened instant of awareness:

... Not the intense moment
Isolated, with no before and after,
But a lifetime burning in every moment
And not the lifetime of one man only
But of old stones ...
(CP, p. 189)


1. Pablo Neurda, The Heights of Macchu Picchu, Translated by Nathaniel Tarn (New York, 1967), p. XVI.

2. T. S. Eliot, Collected Poems 1902-1962 (New York, 1970), p. 175. Cited in the text as CP.

3. Pablo Neruda, Obras completas, Vol. I (Buenos Aires, 1968), 340. Cited in the text as OC I.

4. T. S. Eliot, Selected Essays 1917-1932 (New York, 1932), p. 6. Cited in the text as SE.

5. Hernán Loyola, Ser y morir en Pablo Neruda: 1918-1945 (Santiago, 1967), p. 194.

6. See Robert Pring-Mill in his introduction to Nathaniel Tarn's translation, p. XVI.

7. E. Rodríguez Monegal, El viajero inmóvil (Buenos Aires, 1966), p. 83.

8. Loyola, p. 195.

9. Pablo Neruda, Obras completas, Vol. II (Buenos Aires, 1968), 14.

10. Cf. T. S. Eliot: "... History is now and England" (CP, p. 208).

11. Comment by Pablo Neruda quoted in Margarita Aguirre, Genio y figura de Pablo Neruda (Buenos Aires, 1964), p. 157.

Source Citation

Source Citation   

Gale Document Number: GALE|H1420065490