Ortega [b. 1942; apparently still living] is a poet and critic. He was born in Peru and has lived and taught in the U.S. for many years. In the passage below, he is rebutting the familiar critical observation that Borges’s work is an anomaly in Latin American writing:
[T]he mechanisms that produce [Borges’s] writing confirm, in fact, an operative tradition that is characteristic of the Spanish-American text. In this sense the novelty of Borges’s prose is not its negation of previous Spanish-American languages but, on the contrary, its privileged manifestation of those languages.
Let us look, for instance, at the interaction of various genres. At least since Inca Garcilaso de la Vega’s Royal Commentaries of the Incas [1616-1617], Spanish-American writing has been constituted through the polyvalence of its formalization. Beginning with that text, Spanish-American writing has reflected the following characteristics: it dramatizes its manifestation in a textual space based on history understood as politics (the Incan utopia as the realized projection of the Neoplatonic order); it is formalized through a critical sum of texts (chronicles that are refuted or inserted as a probatory intertext); it is self-referring as a way of producing itself (the narrative that unfolds, splits, and is rechanneled); it shares frontiers with novelistic and philosophical treatises with criticism; and, finally, it reveals the web of history and fiction in a context that generates the cultural discourse of a Spanish America whose first existence is as a textual drama. (“Borges and the Latin-American Text,” p. 22 in Poetics of Change: The New Spanish-American Narrative.)
This passage struck me on more than one account. It so happens that I’ll soon be writing about de la Vega’s Royal Commentaries, but that’s less important than Ortega’s placing of Borges firmly in the mainstream of the larger tradition of writing in Latin America (and I broaden this from Ortega’s “Spanish America” because I see, certainly, Brazilian writing as fitting that list of characteristics in the paragraph above). I’m not an expert on Borges, but it is clear that the traditional take on him is that his perceived European-ness makes him stand out from the pack–and, indeed, is one of his virtues as a writer. Ortega clearly doesn’t have much patience with that take.
The real hook for me, though, is Ortega’s assertion that (and sure, I’ll broaden his remark here still further to include the United States) writing in this hemisphere “reveals the web of history and fiction in a context that generates the cultural discourse of a Spanish America whose first existence is as a textual drama.”
For a very long time now, I’ve felt that the “clash of cultures” orientation of most ways of reading not just the Encounter but just about everything after it–the erasure of indigenous peoples by slaughter and disease; the importation and enslavement of people from Africa–while certainly true from the standpoint of history, seems frankly to ignore something equally true about the cultural expressions of this hemisphere’s peoples: their recognition of themselves as a new people, something other than the mere sum of those parts, and their attempts to make meaning out of this fact on their own terms. That ignoring of what Ortega describes in that last sentence tends to extend, by the way, to the ignoring of this Latin Americans’ theorizing of those–their own–cultural discourses. We in this country, at least, tend to look toward Europe for guidance on all of that as well, as though the nations to the south of us, who have been independent nations for only a few decades less than us but had begun their existences as “a textual drama” almost full century before the first English settlements in our country, can’t possibly have come up with ways of thinking about their own culture. It’s frankly patronizing, offensively so.
In its own small way, I hope this work I’ve been doing will introduce readers to writers and critics who not only have compelling and sophisticated things to say not only about their own cultures but also, if we squint in just the right way, about us in this country.
::steps off soap box::