Ernesto Sabato is one of the most important thinkers and essayists of Latin America.
His works deal mainly with life’s contradictions, where the dichotomy between flesh and spirit is presented as the central source of man’s existential problem. Sabato’s academic background is in mathematics and physics. In 1938 he was working at the Curie Laboratory in Paris when the first experiments with nuclear energy were conducted. This experience precipitated a personal crisis, which made him eventually abandon science and devote his life to literature. Foreseeing the horrible and destructive future of nuclear energy, Sabato became one of the main critics of science and scientific knowledge, defending the power of intuitive knowledge as humanity’s main source of understanding.
His three novels and several books of essays are primarily a development of this idea. As an essayist Sabato has developed his own style of short, highly ironic and concise commentaries, dealing with one problem at a time, but organized in a collection through which a common problem or theme runs.
His first collection of essays was Uno y el universo (1945; One and the universe), a series of short essays on different topics ranging from the “astronomic lens” to “truth and beauty.” This book is composed of 75 sections that as a whole investigate different aspects of the relationship between humankind and the world. In this book Sabato presents his position vis-à-vis science and the course of technological advances, which, as he sees it, are taking us down the road to automatization and destruction. Uno y el universo was his first contribution to the literary world, and like most of his subsequent publications was polemical and controversial.
Hombres y engranajes (1951; Men and gears) was his second book of essays, written three years after the publication of El túnel (1948; The Tunnel), the novel that made him a famous writer in Latin America. The four parts of the book analyze the development of the human spirit since the Renaissance, outlining the changes that took place in man’s view of the world, and how these changes have affected our perception and our hopes. In the second part, “El universo abstracto” (The abstract universe), Sabato discusses the role of abstract reasoning in the current crisis, and how reason has become the new god, the omnipotent force able to control and explain all human reactions. In the end, reason fails us as a way of understanding our role in life, and humans rebel in response. Rebellion is the topic of the third part of the book, where Sabato writes about the Romantic revolution, Marxism, and existentialism, the three most important “revolts of human intellectual history,” as he calls them. The fourth and final section deals with the role of the arts and letters in the crisis. Literature is for Sabato the only road to the secrets of life, the only sincere and direct access to our most intimate fears and deepest secrets. Art and literature are therefore the only way we can face ourselves and surpass the crisis of the modern world.
Two years later Sabato published Heterodoxia (1953; Heterodoxy), a collection of philosophical comments on gender and sexuality, the writer and the artist, the human condition and the irrational mind. The polemical nature of the book aroused many favorable opinions but also evoked critical reactions, including a reply by Victoria Ocampo that led to the end of their friendship and of Sabato’s collaboration with Sur (South), the most important literary journal of Argentina.
El escritor y sus fantasmas (1963; The writer and his phantoms) is perhaps his most important book of essays. In this volume Sabato presents his concept of art as “the only means to reintegrate man’s divided self”and the novel as “the comprehensive genre able to articulate reason and intuition.” The book attempts to answer the question of why, how, and for what purpose fictions are written, and serves as a spiritual guide for aspiring authors. Literature is for Sabato an exploration of the unconscious. While the essay is a rational contemplation of the world, it is the novel, with all its ambiguities and contradictions, which is the genre that can best express human essence and true nature.
Only behind the masks of fiction can writers say what they really think about the things that truly matter to them.
Among Sabato’s other publications should be mentioned Tres aproximaciones a la
literatura de nuestro tiempo (1968; Three approaches to the literature of our times). The three essays included in this book address three different concepts of literature, as exemplified by Alain Robbe-Grillet, Jorge Luis Borges, and Jean-Paul Sartre. From the pure objectivism of the nouveau roman, to the intellectual games of Borges, to the politically engage literature of Sartre, Sabato dissects each of these positions with his characteristic irony and wit, outlining their values as well as their pitfalls. At times Sabato’s constant criticism might seem unreasonable, but a careful reading of his works shows that he is always looking for the existential experience behind the abstraction, always interested in how art and science, knowledge and intuition, affect human lives.
That is the center of his analysis, the main idea he has been working with for 50 years throughout his novels and essays.
Author has chosen not to use an accent on his surname. Born 24 June 1911 in Rojas, Argentina. Studied at the Colegio Nacional, 1924–28; National University of La Plata, 1929–37, Ph.D. in physics, 1937; Joliot-Curie Laboratory, Paris, 1938; Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge, 1939. Married Matilde Kuminsky-Richter, 1934: two sons. Professor of theoretical physics, National University of La Plata, 1940–45: dismissed because of conflict with the government. Executive post with UNESCO, 1947 (resigned after two months). Editor, Mundo Argentino (Argentine world), from 1955.
Director of cultural relations, Ministry of Foreign Relations and Culture, 1958–59 (resigned). Chair, National Commission on the Disappearance of Persons, 1984.
Awards: several, including Buenos Aires Municipal Prize, for essay collection, 1945; Argentine Writers’ Society Sash of Honor, 1945, and Grand Prize, 1974; Institute of Foreign Reiations Prize (West Germany), 1973; Consagració Nacional Prize, 1974; Prix du Meilleur Livre Étranger (France), 1977; Gran Cruz al Mérito Civil (Spain), 1979;
Gabriela Mistral Prize, 1984; Cervantes Prize, 1985; Jerusalem Prize, 1989. Chevalier, Order of the Arts and Letters (France), 1964; Chevalier, 1979, and Commander, 1987, Legion of Honor (France).
Essays and Related Prose
Uno y el universo, 1945
Hombres y engranajes: Reflexiones sobre el dinero, la razón y el derrumbe de nuestro tiempo, 1951
El otro rostro del peronismo: Carta abierta a Mario Atnadeo, 1956
El caso Sábato: Torturas y libertad de prensa—Carta abierta al Gral. Aramburu, 1956
Tango: Discusión y clave, 1963
El escritor y sus fantasmas, 1963
Tres aproximaciones a la literatura de nuestro tiempo: Robbe- Grillet, Borges, Sartre, 1968
La convulsión política y social de nuestro tiempo, 1969
Obras: Ensayos, 1970
Claves políticos, 1971
La cultura en la encrucijada nacional, 1973
Apologías y rechazos, 1979
La robotizacion del hombre y otras pdginas de ficción y reflexión, 1981
Nunca más: Informe de la Comision Nacional sobre la Desaparicion de Persona, 1985
The Writer in the Catastrophe of Our Time, translated by Asa Zatz, 1990
Other writings: three novels (El túnel [The Tunnel], 1948; Sobre héroes y tumbas [On Heroes and Totnbs], 1961; Abaddón, el exterminador [The Angel of Darkness], 1974).
Urbina, Nicasio, “Bibliografía crítica completa de Ernesto Sabato, con un índice temático,” Revista de Critica Literaria Latinoamericana 14, no. 27 (1988):117–222;
also in Pre-Texto 19:1–84
Urbina, Nicasio, “Bibliografia crítica comentada sobre Ernesto Sabato con un indice temático,” Hispania 73 (1990):953–77
Benedetti, Mario, “Ernesto Sabato como critico practicante,” in his Letras del continente mestizo, Montevideo: Arca, 1967:47–50
Brushwood, J.C., “Ernesto Sabato: Hombres y engranajes,” Books Abroad 26, no. 3 (1952):281–82
Catania, Carlos, Sabato: Entre la idea y la sangre, San José: Editorial Costa Rica, 1973
Correa, Maria Angelica, Genio y figura de Ernesto Sabato, Buenos Aires: University of Buenos Aires, 1971
Dellepiane, Ángela B., “Dialogo con Ernesto Sabato,” El Escarabajo Deoro 5 (1962):4– 6, 20
Dellepiane, Ángela B., “Sabato y el ensayo hispanoamericano,” Asomante 22, no. 1 (1966): 47–59
Dellepiane, Ángela B., Ernesto Sabato: El hombre y su obra, New York: Las Américas, 1968
Fernandez Suarez, Alvaro, “Ernesto Sabato: Heterodoxia,” Sur 204 (1951):129–32
Fernandez Suarez, Alvaro, “Ernesto Sabato: Hombres y engranajes” Sur 204 (1951):71– 74
Giacoman, Helmy F., editor, Los personajes de Sabato, Buenos Aires: Emece, 1972
Giacoman, Helmy F., editor, Homenaje a Ernesto Sabato, New York: Las Américas, 1973
Oberhelman, Harley Dean, Ernesto Sdbato, New York: Twayne, 1970: especially Chapter 2, “Sabato the Essayist”
Ocampo, Victoria, “Carta a Ernesto Sabato,” Sur 211–12 (1952): 166–69
Ocampo, Victoria, “Correspondencia sobre ‘La metafisica del sexo’,” Sur 213–14 (1952):161–64
Petrea, Mariana D., Ernesto Sabato: La nada y la metafísica de la esperanza, Madrid: Porrúa Turanzas, 1986
Urbina, Nicasio, “La lectura en la obra de Er nesto Sabato,” Revista Iberoamericana 53, no. 141 (1987):823–36
Urbina, Nicasio, La significacion del genero: Estudio semiotico de las novelas y ensayos de Ernesto Sabato, Miami: Universal, 1992
Vázquez Bigi, A.M., editor, Epica dadora de eternidad: Sabato en la crítica americana y europea, Buenos Aires: Sudamericana/Planeta, 1985
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