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:
Jorge Luis Borges (1899-1986), in his natural habitat.
[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.
Garcilaso de la Vega (1539-1616), known as “El Inca” to distinguish himself from his uncle, the Spanish poet of the same name. “El Inca” was the son of a Spanish soldier and an Inca woman who was a member of that people’s royal family.
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.”
Originally published in Brazil in 1978, this translation (by E. A. Goodland and Thomas Colchie) was published in 1984.
In her important study, Foundational Fictions: The National Romances of Latin America (1991), Doris Sommer discusses a range of nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century novels from throughout Latin America that, she argues, were intended to create in readers a sense of national identity in the wake of independence. These novels, she writes, “are almost inevitably stories of star-crossed lovers who represent particular regions, races, parties, economic interests, and the like. Their passion of conjugal and sexual union spills over to a sentimental readership that hopes to win partisan minds along with hearts” (5). We have no exact equivalent to these novels in the U.S., though Sommer discusses Cooper’s The Last of the Mohicans as inspiration for some South American novelists; but, if one squints in a Leslie Fiedler kind of way, one can see how Huckleberry Finn would be an exact fit for the description Sommer provides. For Brazilians, one such novel would be Iracema (1865), by José de Alencar (1829-1877), who was an important political figure in mid-nineteenth-century Brazil. It allegorizes the origins of Brazil by means of the tale of the Tupi Indian woman Iracema (an anagram of “America”) and Martim, a Portuguese colonist, who together conceive a son; his birth, however, even as it symbolizes the emergence of the Brazilian people, also leads to Iracema’s death. (Notably missing from this novel is the presence of the third race that, combined with indigenous and European peoples, led to the emergence of the Brazilian people: people of African descent brought to Brazil as slaves. But all of that belongs, for now, in a discussion for another time.)
I am sharing all this because, while reading Darcy Ribeiro’s novel Maíra (1978) and becoming a bit frustrated with it as I did so, I finally realized that it is writing both in response to and against the romantic myth of Brazil’s founding that Iracema helped establish. Moreover, it does so by turning Iracema‘s elements inside-out in an attempt not to re-mythologize Brazil’s past but to cannibalize that nation’s literary past so as to render the truth of Brazil’s present, at least as Ribeiro had come to understand it.
To those of you reading this, Happy New Year, first and foremost.
It’s been a while since I’ve had a moment to write anything of real substance here. The big (academic) deal, which I will write about in another post, is how teaching PrairyErth went this past fall. However, this post is about that book, sort of–or, rather, mostly about the moment in time that that book was researched and written. It is also about a book PrairyErth quotes from in several places, John Brinckerhoff Jackson’s classic work of landscape studies, Discovering the Vernacular Landscape (1984). All during the fall semester, the fact that PrairyErth is 27 years old kept rearing its head, in a good way: While much in Chase County has not really changed much from William Least Heat-Moon’s time to ours, our various engagements with that space and the issues raised in PrairyErth have changed as much because of the Internet as because of the simple passage of time. When I began reading Jackson’s book last week, though, I had assumed its arguments, because of their historical and theoretical nature, would not require much if any modification, even more than 30 years later. Jackson, in his defining of landscape as “a composition of man-made spaces on the land” (7, author’s italics) and distinguishing between political and inhabited landscapes (the latter being very similar to what people mean by “place”), is considerably more sanguine about the fate of rural life in this country than Heat-Moon or Wendell Berry is: so long as people maintain some sort of connection to physical space, Jackson argues, our various landscapes will evolve as on-the-whole positive responses to evolving human social needs. Heat-Moon senses in the Chase countians he meets that most of them know better than a bunch of outsiders what’s best for their county; Berry’s argument that farm mechanization in the name of efficiency has killed the vitality of rural life and is itself not sustainable in the long term is the very embodiment of a de facto detachment from the land.
For whatever it may be worth, I don’t share Jackson’s optimism about the fate of rural life, either; but I’d assumed that I was responding in that way because of my reading of the aforementioned Heat-Moon and Berry. But then recently I read something that reminded me, again, that the Web has reshaped our understanding of how humans are linked to topography: it has so reshaped it that it feels as though culturally we’re all but unmoored from topography, all but completing (Western) culture’s separation from Nature that began a little over a century ago with the advent of Modernism.
The memorial at Tlatelolco in Mexico City, at the Plaza de las Tres Culturas, commemorating the final defeat of the Aztecs by Cortes in 1521. The last three lines of text read: “It was neither triumph nor defeat; it was the painful birth of the mestizo people that is today’s Mexico.”
Last week was my college’s Finals Week, so now the summer has arrived. This academically-oriented to-do list for this summer that follows is, as the list progresses down the page, admittedly more aspirational in nature than anything else, seeing as well off even the margins of this particular list lie new-baby-oriented and puttering-around-the-house to-do lists. But list-make we must.
Despite the radio silence here at the blog since my last post (apologies for the mixed (technologies) metaphor there), I have been doing some final editing and emendation of already-written chapters, soliciting colleagues to have a look at said chapters, and (as this post’s title indicates) getting some reading done. Now that the semester is done and I am done with doctors’ appointments and have returned from a visit with my daughters and my mother, I am about ready to settle into working on the next chapter, which uses as its starting point Alvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca’s account of his eight-year (1528-1536) journey across Texas and northern Mexico and will lead to a discussion of texts that, in various ways, use, modify, and otherwise play with language so as to better convey the experience of living in this hemisphere. Before I get to that, though, I have some minor additions to make to the earlier chapters, for which I have two books to blame (and be grateful).
Eudora Welty, Home by Dark/Yalobusha County. 1936. Via. This is also the cover image for the 1990 Vintage edition of Go Down, Moses.
What follows is some thinking-out-loud that will be part of the chapter on Go Down, Moses and Tent of Miracles–specifically, an attempt to tie together land and cultural expression in the two novels. (Progress report: It’s coming along, but it has felt at times like I am a vulture circling high in the sky over an animal to make sure it is dead before I will alight on it. I’m pretty sure it’s dead now.)
It’s below the fold to spare those who won’t be interested; here, though, is the tl;dr version: 1) At the time he wrote it, Go Down, Moses was Faulkner’s most intimate exploration of not just black-white relations but of black lives and black interiority. Still, though, it is a novel that is ultimately more concerned with white attempts to come to terms with the post-bellum South. Thus, those glimpses of black lives we have are (mis)read by whites, but some of them resist any attempt to read them. This brings me to: 2) You can learn a heck of a lot about how to read Faulkner from Minrose Gwin.
The cover of a Brazilian(?) edition of Amado’s novel, via (though this particular copy of the book is no longer for sale at that site).
I have begun my reread of Brazilian writer Jorge Amado’s novel Tent of Miracles, which I have paired with Faulkner’s Go Down, Moses in chapter 2 of the book project. I’ll start off this post by making a couple of points regarding Ike McCaslin’s relationship to the land, and then I’ll make some comparisons between that and Tent of Miracles‘ treatment of Bahia, along with some initial remarks comparing Ike to Tent of Miracles‘ protagonist, Pedro Archanjo. A good starting point for where I will be headed, though, is to compare the cover art for the Amado novel (which appears to be a scene from the 1977 film version) with that of the first edition of Go Down, Moses, which I posted here. Though admittedly a bit of a cherry-pick on my part, that cover, with its depiction of a vast landscape empty of people, contrasted with the cover of Amado’s novel–the frame crowded with people, dressed and equipped with a fusion of Western and African-diaspora clothes and instruments–serves quite nicely as a starting point for this post.
You think your pain and your heartbreak are unprecedented in the history of the world, but then you read. It was books that taught me that the things that tormented me most were the very things that connected me with all the people who were alive, or who had ever been alive.--James Baldwin