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2 A Portrait of Plaza The Man, the Musician Plaza the Man Juan Bautista Plaza was shy—although he did not like to admit it—and “preferred to express himself in writing, avoiding verbal improvisation as much as possible.”1 His youthful diaries and letters reveal a sensitive , self-critical perfectionist who habitually set lofty standards for himself . These early writings, together with the reports of those who knew him in his maturity, show that he was a complex, driven man who refused to rest on his laurels. These traits explain the enormous range of his professional activities and accomplishments.2 As a troubled law student of eighteen and nineteen years old, Plaza poured out his heart into a “Diary of Ideas” that he used as a tool for selfanalysis . One day, for example, he criticized the literary quality of something he had written earlier: July 29 [1917] Sometimes I wonder if I have gone mad, for I make gestures and write things that don’t lead to thinking about anything at all. Now, for example, I’ve just come back from a little walk that I took to the Sabanita de Blanco. There, perched up high, I wrote some really curious “impressions of the moment.” Curious because they are excessively foolish and trivial. . . . One sees how little inspired I was in the “moment” and how much I wanted to be. . . . [Text of the “impressions” follows.] Has anything in such bad taste, so ridiculous, so foolish, ever been seen in the matter of literature?3 In later life this tendency to devalue something written earlier manifested itself in his attitude toward his compositions, as remarks by his widow indicate . To remedy his perceived faults or deficiencies, young Plaza sometimes designed corrective projects. For example, to improve his discipline he outlined in his diary a schedule of study and other activities designed for selfimprovement , and he later reported on how well he had been able to follow the schedule. To improve his memory, he decided to work on memorizing a French-language book about world history. He felt that his prose was not as skillful “as might well be supposed,” so he decided to write a page of literature every day on “whatever subject.” He ended up filling at least two notebooks with copying exercises, translations, and original essays in Spanish and French. Plaza’s “Diary of Ideas,” besides documenting his efforts at self-analysis and self-improvement, records his love of the countryside, his love of study, his desire always to be frank with himself, his indecision about his vocation, his dislike of playing popular music on the piano, his inability to express what he felt, and his need for a good friend or sweetheart to whom he could communicate his overflowing thoughts and emotions. It also documents his struggles to understand the meaning of life apart from the teachings of the Catholic Church. Organized religion was troublesome for Plaza. At age eighteen he nearly despaired because of religious doubt. So profound was his anguish that he became physically ill and was advised by his doctor to take a twomonth break from his law studies. After reflection, he decided instead to avoid thinking about religion for two months.4 Nevertheless he felt compelled to explore literature on philosophy, morality, and ethics, for his soul thirsted after spiritual nourishment.5 He even had “religious experiences” precipitated by non-religious stimuli. For instance, a work by Henri Bordeaux moved him to inarticulate ecstasy: July 23 [1917] What intense emotion has been produced in me by the reading of that book. Perhaps it is the greatest emotion I have ever experienced from reading a book. Agnollo is truly beautiful. Truly, there is life there. There is art, but above all life, life. What emotion on arriving at that conclusion. How beautiful my God, how beautiful. Why won’t I live a life like that: true, emotional, divine. One of those works makes me a thousand times more a believer than a thousand polemics of Father Honoré [one of Plaza’s secondary school teachers]. I have finished reading and I have believed in God again, in supernatural and divine Life. I cannot, as always happens to me when the occasion presents itself, express what I feel. It is divine, it is divine.6 A Portrait of Plaza / 13 This was not to be the end of Plaza’s spiritual struggles. After wrestling for three more years with vocational indecision, Plaza was...


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