On the periphery of wisdom

To understand what Figueres is, it is enough to pick up a map. We will see at once that it is on the periphery of Europe, far from Madrid, at a certain distance from Barcelona and Girona. Over time, its residents have gradually got used to the idea of living outside the centres of political decision. Those who have the gift of an abundant imagination have learnt to work on their own, to develop their projects without public support, subsidies and immediate effects. Greatness, in this case, is no more than a euphemism for extravagance, understood as the proud conviction of being on the periphery – of power, but also of wisdom.

This awareness of one’s own extravagance has led many locals to look to science: as if a scientific sheen could compensate the ferocious tendency to emotional outburst. The first to theorise this solution was Salvador Dalí. He himself recognised that the paranoiac-critical method was an attempt to systematise delirium. When I was a child, I heard Dalí speak so many times of deoxyribonucleic acid that until I started secondary school I was convinced that the substance was a product of his imagination. I did not understand until much later that many of his boutades were the distillation of a privileged mind, although it was difficult to distinguish between the merely scandalising statements and his words of wisdom – albeit enveloped in a shameless wit.

Francesc Pujols, a peripheral philosopher from Granollers – to whom Dalí dedicated the monument located in front of his museum –, wrote in 1918 about “the style which has the particularity that many times, not to say always, neither we nor anyone can say if it is written seriously or as a joke.” It is, in any case, a style rooted in Figueres and which has always made me think of pataphysics, the science of imaginary solutions, the discipline which does not seek to complete science but to disrupt it. Pataphysics seemed an excrescence of surrealism, but it has finally survived it and has had such respectable practitioners as Raymond Queneau or Umberto Eco.

It is reasonable to consider Alexandre Deulofeu (1903-1978), the pharmacist who conceived the Mathematics of History, as a pataphysicist. If each group of living human beings is born, grows up, matures, gets old and dies in accordance with some determined laws, should there not also be laws that rule the life of empires? According to this chemist, historian and violinist, the apparently fortuitous movement of civilisations is, in fact, a bio-historical symphony that repeats the same movements throughout the centuries, and which therefore can be the object of predictions. At the end of the 1940s, Deulofeu was right when he stated that before the end of the century the USSR would fall apart and Germany would again be a major power. The Mathematics of History was to consist of twenty-two volumes but he finally reduced it to eight because he feared he would not be able to complete it.

Like Alexandre Deulofeu, Frederic Macau (1917-1970) is a compendium of science and imagination. Exalted before the beauty of the curve drawn by the Bay of Roses, this civil engineer foresaw that that curve had a mathematical origin. After having superimposed many vertical photographs of the area, Macau confirmed what he had suspected for some time; that the Bay of Roses forms a perfect ellipsis, or rather, two ellipses at a tangent to a straight line located approximately in the middle of the beach. The upper axes of these ellipses measure 8.6 and 13.9 kilometres respectively, so that if we divide them we obtain their ratio, which is 0.61870; that is, the golden ratio, the divine proportion, the golden rule of classical beauty.

Figueres boasts many figures who have devoted great energy to specialisation in very personal fields, of little or no use. They are individuals capable of offering mental constructions of a certain depth, located halfway between invention and discovery, deposited after years of reading and reflection, and often cited by experts from all over the world. In their field of research, these figure shine with a singular light and show to the patient interlocutors an enthusiasm which, in sustainable doses, can be contagious – although only on rare occasions does it receive the respect it deserves. In La balada del Sabater d’Ordis, the poet Carles Fages de Climent summarised this local tendency in a famous decasyllable: “Beat aquell qui al món té una cabòria” (Be happy those who in the world have a chimera).
A chimera was in fact what led another citizen of Figueres, Narcís Monturiol (1819-1885), to invent and manufacture the first submarine in history. Because of the lack of resources, however, the prototype was broken up, and the portholes were finally used to refurnish a bathroom. If Monturiol had lived in London or Paris, he would probably have achieved more, but as a person from Figueres he only had his street named after him: the same street where Dalí was born, where Fages de Climent used to live and where Deulofeu had his pharmacy.

In 1919, the writer Pere Coromines wrote a brief volume, later illustrated by Dalí, entitled Les gràcies de l'Empordà, where we can read: “One of the subtlest charms of L’Empordà, God have mercy!, are the thoughts which have not been thought, the attempts which have not been made, and the projects that nobody will ever carry out. They are lies which are not lies, entelechies which fell asleep on the way to truth, without reaching it. A scholastic would say that they potentially exist, without becoming an act.” The keystone of this literary genre is that, although devoting a great deal of his time and considerable effort to it, the creator must be able to separate from it with a sporting scepticism. This capacity for believing without believing in it, of considering one’s own findings with what we could call ironic faith, is what places these theories in a specific territory, equidistant between the mere anecdote and the sterile erudition. “Paranoia forms an essential part of our mood,” wrote the lawyer and journalist Narcís Pijoan in 1986, an attentive observer of Figueres’ mentality. According to him, “this irony is necessary to enthusiasm, as a corrective force to keep it within its fair limits.” We find ourselves in the field of a serious game, of a playful rigour, of a journey within that surprises and exceeds its own author, of the verisimilitude conquered step by step by force of resources and imagination. We find ourselves, in other words, in the field of literature.

Irony is the joy of sad people, deflated solemnity, the best therapy in times of crisis. It seeks truth through humour, transformation without violence. According to the philosopher Josep Ferrater Mora, “we ridicule when we are desperate.” Recognising the boundaries of reality can be the first step to changing them. Faced with the temptation of the absolute, irony allows us to temper ourselves, to distance from ourselves for the sake of moderation.

Figueres can offer an illustrious list of isolated speculators, of inoffensive professors of the patch, of extravagant people of thought lacking a tribune, painstaking systematisers of confusion. They have not had much luck with the exception of Salvador Dalí, who conceived life as a gradual journey towards the centre – Madrid, Paris, New York – before the triumphal return to the periphery. Impermeable to the lack of reactions, insensitive to the generalised lack of concerns, the native speculators continue to concentrate their experience, their knowledge and their intuitions on a side-splitting theory, an unknown system which arranges some facet of the universe from top to toe. To lose ourselves in an obsession can help resist the evil of the world. In the end, as René Daumal wrote, "the laughter of the pataphysicist is no more than the human expression of despair."