Latin American Literatures: A Comparative History of Cultural Formations. Ed. Mario Valdés and Linda Hutcheon. 3 vols. English (Oxford UP), Spanish (Fondo de Cultura Económica), and Portuguese (Editora UFRJ), as well as in CD-ROM format. Ongoing research for this collective project can be accessed via the internet on http://www.chass.utoronto.ca:8080/lithist
Ricardo Piglia once pointed out that the apocryphal quote at the beginning of Domingo Sarmiento’s Facundo (1845) -- the French sentence “on ne tue point les idées,” written by Sarmiento on a wall after being attacked by a federalist gang -- can be taken as an emblem of Argentine literature in its foundational moment. Not simply in its banal content, but primarily in its form and in the discursive economy that presides over its historical inscription. By relating how Rosas’s dictatorship, “after sending a committee in charge of deciphering the hieroglyph,”(Sarmiento 5) must have wondered what in the world it could mean, Sarmiento draws the line between civilization and barbarism with a mere epigraph: barbarians are, of course, those unable to read the sentence. More than in the utopian vision it voices, “the sentence’s political content resides in the use of the French language” (Piglia 15). A voracious student of foreign languages, Sarmiento located in the transculturation of European sources a sine qua non condition for the construction of a modern civilized Argentine nation. Transculturation is, however, always already torn apart by aporias, not the least of which plagues the authorship of Sarmiento’s epigraph. Sarmiento attributes it to Fortoul, but Groussac later argued that it was in fact taken from Volney, only to be contradicted by Verdevoye, who noted that it does not appear either in Fortoul or Volney, but in Diderot. The exercise in tracking down sources naturally does not matter in itself, but as an emblem of the predicament of an entire national literature. Designed to found a nation by alienating, domesticating, and eventually transculturating that nation’s originary barbarism, the letrado’s civilizing gesture is from the beginning contaminated by a savage, barbaric relationship with its sources, emblematized in recurrent erroneous and second-hand attributions.
Sarmiento’s relationship with barbarism is thus not one of pure exteriority, since the task of transculturation is double: one must translate both the European source and the untamed vigor of the nation’s barbaric essence. This double task had already been formulated by the members of the Salón Literario of 1837 and popularized by Echeverría’s famous dictum: “hay que tener un ojo puesto en la inteligencia europea y el otro en las entrañas de la patria” (qtd. Weinberg 223). From the standpoint of Argentine liberalism, Facundo is the book that accomplishes this task. Sarmiento’s insistence on the need to discipline barbarism through enlightened modern knowledge is no more central to his argument than the insistence on refusing the mere imitation of Europe which he saw in so many of his liberal contemporaries. Echeverría, for example, is praised in Facundo for not having repeated the error of Juan Cruz and Florencio Varela, who failed, despite their “maestría clásica y estro poético . . . porque nada agregaban al caudal de nociones europeas” (39). In contrast, Echeverría’s “La cautiva” approached that “inmensidad sin límites . . . de una naturaleza solemne, grandiosa, incomensurable” (39-40), and thus envisioned a truly national literature, which for Sarmiento had to emerge from the “descripción de las grandiosas escenas naturales” (39). It would be simple, of course, to show that Sarmiento’s account of Argentine nature in Echeverría’s poem and in the literature to come drew considerably more on the Kantian analytic of the sublime - by then already disseminated by European Romanticism, notably by Humboldt’s highly influential writings on his equinocial travels (Pratt; G. Echeverría) - than on the pampa itself, with which, by the way, Sarmiento had not had first-hand contact. For the understanding of the economy of transculturation in its foundational moment, however, a more complex challenge presents itself: to demonstrate how the roots of Sarmiento’s aporias lie, as I will argue below, in his perception that despite his best efforts this dialectic - to transculturate Europe while also transculturating barbarism, to translate the European source while remaining faithful to the truth of barbarism - could not be realized without leaving a remainder.
Justifying why he did not make any changes in this hastily produced work, Sarmiento confessed he was reluctant to “retocar obra tan informe,” lest there might disappear “su fisionomía primitiva y la lozana y voluntariosa audacia de la mal disciplinada concepción” (19). “Formless and primitive physiognomy,” “willful audacity,” and “undisciplined conception” are also the terms used by Sarmiento to describe barbarism. The civilizing, foundational text borrows from barbarism its very principle of construction. It is not gratuitous that in Sarmiento’s metacommentary his work replicates the very (un)structure of the barbarism which is to be transculturated. Sarmiento legitimates himself not so much as the bearer of modern European knowledge - in that he was not unique among his Unitarian liberal compatriots - but as the faithful translator of barbarism. As he attempts to cancel barbarism while maintaining its truth - this being Sarmiento’s view of translation - one particular operation becomes crucial: taxonomy. Not by chance, the study of Facundo Quiroga’s origins is prefaced by an inquiry into the “caracteres argentinos,” among which Sarmiento discerns the “Rastreador,” “Baqueano,” “Gaucho malo,” and “Cantor.” The gaucho appears as a vegetal or mineral species to be classified, organized, described to an alien observer: Sarmiento presupposes a traveler’s gaze. Before explaining the origins of the barbarian caudillo, the grounds that made him possible must accept the letrado’s taxonomic effort. That which can be classified can be tamed. The Nietzschean postulate of an organic relationship between grammar and power was never clearer than in Sarmiento. If the untamed dispersion of singularities can be subsumed under a handful of pseudo-Linnean categories, barbarism might yield to the letrado’s civilizing mission, and accept to cancel / maintain itself in the modern nation-state. Sarmiento’s taxonomy announces the seed of the gaucho bueno / gaucho malo dichotomy that Mansilla would popularize a few decades later, when the pseudo-Linnean table had already been reduced to a binary between those inside and those outside the ideological universe encompassed by the nation state.
The most crucial taxonomy in Facundo emerges, however, in the introduction, when Sarmiento establishes one of the many connections and contrasts between Facundo and Rosas: the provincial Facundo, barbarian but “brave” and “audacious,” has led to the urban Rosas, “who carries out evil without passion,” with a “false and cold heart” and “calculating spirit.” In this American proto-version of the first-time-as-tragedy-second-time-as-farce axiom that Marx would formulate seven years later, the transculturator identifies a process of transculturation at the very heart of barbarism. Barbarism, misunderstood as the unchanging realm of untamed nature by many of Sarmiento’s allies and later readership - a contention which is a crucial part of Sarmiento’s own argument in the book - appears, in fact, as the agent of the originary transculturation, the mythical fall that provides Sarmiento with his point of departure and mechanism of legitimation. The seduction of Sarmiento’s work derives from his ability to envision a utopia while narrating a fall. This fable of origins depicts a division of labor between the barbarian but truthful caudillo and his farcical, despicable reincarnation in the capital, and therein Sarmiento locates the very need for his endeavor: Facundo is necessary because Facundo has become Rosas. In other words, the civilizing transculturation carried out by the letrado is imperative because barbarism has proven able to disguise itself in the garbs of civilization, beat civilization, as it were, on its own terrain. Remarkably more complex than one would think at first, the fable of origin paints a barbarism originally “patriarchal and primitive,” “hostile” yet “full of purity” (92), traits which are embodied in the gaucho’s moral character, “strong, haughty, energetic” (34). Facundo, faithful translator of a prelapsarian barbarism, is dictatorial yet “a man of genius” (86), sheer “instinct of destruction and bloodshed” (83) yet a “superior man” (88), capable of nurturing legends about his omnipotence, whereas Rosas can now only impose himself through a mercenary gang of bullies. How has the primitive truth of barbarism, savage and odious yet faithful to its essence, been transculturated into the sly, deceitful, cowardly barbarism of the urban caudillo? In a sense, the whole purpose of Sarmiento’s enterprise is to solve this puzzle. If “Quiroga, en su larga carrera, en los diversos pueblos que ha conquistado, jamás se ha encargado del gobierno organizado, que encargaba siempre a otros” (96), this is so because Facundo Quiroga remains truthful to the essence of barbarism: as untamed destruction, barbarism cannot, by definition, organize a state. It cannot exist as a positive set of rules and laws. Barbarism is the realm of sheer negativity. When it does take charge of the state, it loses its truth, the “haughtiness, energy, purity” that remained uncorrupted in Facundo, the prelapsarian translator. The protagonist of this fall is, of course, Rosas. In Sarmiento’s narrative Rosas becomes the portrait of what happens to the barbarian caudillo, hitherto a faithful incarnation of the land’s essence, when he takes charge of a civilized, modern state. This civilized state loses its truth, becomes barbarian - and the verb “to become” is misleading here, since there is obviously no previously constituted civilized state later corrupted by Rosas - but a correlative loss takes place within barbarism itself. The caudillo loses his untamed prelapsarian force and falls to the level of a despicable dictator. Sarmiento extracts his foundational fiction from this remarkably complex dialectic: if the barbarian ruling the state has corrupted the laws of civilization, his presence at the helm has also corrupted his own barbarism, which has thus lost its original truth. If the lawless caudillo turned chief-of-state has made of civilization a barbarian aberration, the need to administer civilization has produced an aberrant barbarism, a barbarism deprived of the vigor, force, and haughtiness most proper to it. Sarmiento’s project, the project of Latin American modernizing liberalism is, then, to extract from this dialectic its moment of truth and turn it upside down, as it were.
The transculturator’s self-imposed task is to turn the dialectic of barbarism upside down, or “stand it on its head” - to continue with the Marxian analogy. As we have seen, this operation for Sarmiento does not designate a simple movement of “civilizing barbarism,” but a considerably more complex one of forging the truth of civilization from the starting point of an already transculturated barbarism, a barbarism that has fallen away from its truth precisely by taking charge of civilization. There is no symmetry between these two terms, not only because civilization is the dominant, privileged pole in the binary, but more importantly because they entertain different relationships with truth. Barbarism has fallen out of truth, renounced its truth, so to speak, at the moment it ceased to be sheer destruction and negativity (moment represented by Quiroga, the faithful translator) and accepted the positive role of taking charge of the state apparatus (farcical moment represented by Rosas). In contrast, the truth of civilization, for Sarmiento, still has to be built; it has a utopian nature. The truth of civilization is the truth of what still not is. In other words, for Sarmiento the present is deprived of truth, both of the truth of barbarism, located in a prelapsarian past, and the truth of civilization, projected to a future yet to be built by the enlightened elite. The transculturator sets to himself the mission of extracting a utopian truth from the residue of a barbarism which has fallen out of truth. The transculturator writes, then, in a truthless present.
This utopian, programmatic dimension separates Facundo from the entirety of the anti-Rosas writing that sets the grounds of national literature in Argentina. For much of that writing - José Mármol’s Amalia, Esteban Echeverría’s “El matadero” - presents its allegories of nationhood negatively, through a resolute negation of what is (Rosas), the monstrosity of which, however, precludes the imagining of what may be, or at best leaves that imagining to be done upon the ruins, the failure of the enlightening projects they narrate. Only Facundo turns the void of the present - emblematized in the “intellectual barren land” into which Rosas has transformed Argentina, but also in the pampa’s very emptiness, a transhistorical, atemporal origin for Sarmiento, who in this sense inaugurates a tradition that would culminate in Martínez Estrada - into the basis for a positive program. Facundo’s uniqueness lies, then, not in the fact that it “se inscribe en la literatura al lograr el nivel de especificidad de lo literario” (Viñas 5) - for that specificity in Latin America is, of course, a transcultural retrospective construction several decades posterior to Sarmiento’s work, as Julio Ramos has shown in his genealogical exploration of “literature” as a discursive formation in Latin America (Ramos, Desencuentros) - but rather in the fact that it envisions the transculturation of barbarism as a prerequisite for the liberal project of forging a modern nation state.
In this sense, Sarmiento shares much with Daniel Bello, the hero of José Mármol’s Amalia (1851). An emblem of integrity with flexibility, perseverance with equilibrium, commitment to ideals without sectarianism, Daniel Bello stands opposed not only to the dictator Rosas, but also to hasty Unitarians who have not learned the value of political reconciliation. Born to a family with Federalist credentials, it is up to Daniel to use them on several occasions to weave the political strategy that could bring an end to Rosist barbarism. Contrary to lovers Belgrano and Amalia, models of virtue but also of naïveté, Daniel represents the maturing of that adolescent yearning for justice into an adult, virile sense of balance and prudence. In 1851 the Argentine elite, represented by Mármol, already formulated the image of the patricios who would unify the state in 1880. After seeing his love for Florencia, and Belgrano’s for his cousin Amalia survive countless peripetia related to the struggle against Rosas’s persecution, Daniel is murdered, along with Belgrano, by Rosas’s police during their final attempt to flee to Montevideo. As Doris Sommer points out, “Belgrano and Bello hold them off with unbelievable heroism and success, but not long enough for Bello’s Federalist father to arrive and turn the police away. The two friends could have been saved by his conciliatory presence. The tragedy was not inevitable; it was rather a miscalculation” (Sommer 101). If it is true that the “final scene plays on the reader’s mind like some kind of possibility or promise” (Sommer 101), it is also true that this is all that is left of Daniel Bello: an example. Unlike Facundo, Amalia only imagines a nation negatively, as a byproduct of what might have happened had Daniel’s conciliatory strategy been followed to the full. While Amalia ends the novel as a young widow, bearing in her womb the recently conceived heir to Belgrano - thus projecting to the future a nation-building process still incomplete - nothing in the novel guarantees the future success of Daniel’s tactics of subsuming barbarism under civilization, rather than opposing the two.
The impossibility of rounding up the image of the nation as a coherent totality takes, for Mármol, the dimensions of a formal problem. The elusiveness to totalization in the civic sphere accounts for Amalia’s fragmented structure, its resistance to being a novel in the modern sense. For if not even Daniel’s sensible negotiation of opposites has managed to trigger the Aufhebung that could consolidate a nation, if barbarism resists being subsumed under civilization as much as it resists being defeated by it, fiction will necessarily fail to conjure the impure residues of a pre-novelistic, pre-modern melange of discourses. Bello himself is not a novelistic hero, insofar as he always knows what happens to him, as opposed to the incomplete, decentered, unauthorized character proper to the novel as a genre. Daniel Bello is little more than a replica of Mármol, an omniscient figure whose presence in the text eliminates all possibility of ironic distance. Furthermore, throughout Amalia the evolution of the argument is plagued by interruptions of all kinds: political declarations, manifestoes, chronicles, historical letters, autobiographical remarks, etc. This highly hybrid text, only by a brutal reduction classifiable as a novel, replicates the very disassembled polis that it denounces. The failure of Daniel’s project, emblematized in his murder at the end of novel - despite the feeling that it was not inevitable, despite the strong authorial suggestion that his policy was the one that could lead Argentina to an enlightened modernity - represents, in itself, the failure of transculturation. Nothing guarantees that the foetus bore by Amalia will be the carrier of a fulfilled nation in the future. The letrado’s legacy remains uncertain, an uncertainty that resonates outside the text, in its publication history: on October 25, 1852, after Urquiza’s victory over Rosas’s army in Caseros, Mármol announces the interruption in the publication of Amalia, as part of the ni vencedores ni vencidos post-Caseros pact. Whereas Daniel’s reasonable strategies of compromise earned him a place as a fictional model of moderation, historical moderation demanded the silencing of his voice, lest the bourgeois-oligarchic pact that would eventually unify the nation be spoilt.
Remarkably different in its structure but expressing a similar historical predicament to Amalia, Colombia’s national novel, María (1867), also imagines the nation negatively, in the void left by an unfulfilled allegory. In the only South American nation not to achieve national unification in the 19th century, Jorge Isaacs embedded a national allegory in a frustrated love story where, however, the impossibility of Romantic love is represented by the most unusual figure of an interdict without prohibition. Efraín, another image of the reasonable, enlightened, and modern male loves and is reciprocated by María, her bastard cousin. This is a love that cannot be fulfilled, not due to any of the social impediments one usually finds in Romantic taboos (family prohibition, class difference, etc.), but simply because good sense, and a discreet family encouragement, has sent Efraín to London, to acquire that modern enlightened knowledge that would make of him the emblem of the new ruling class. Suffering from epilepsy, María cannot bear the sight of her beloved during her crises, and their second opportunity is lost on that account - Efraín is too sensible a young man to allow his passion to stand in the way of his concern for her health. Upon his definitive return, María’s health has worsened and he barely makes it in time to see her corpse. The timing of their frustrated reencounter emblematizes the impossibility of the utopian junction: either Efraín has wandered for too long in the cradle of civilization, or María has lingered for too long, too close to the native land, and finds herself eventually killed by a disease inherited from the mother. Efraín is either too far from her (in England, away from the Colombian oligarchic idyll) or too close (too immediately present, and thus threatening her health). Travel, return, inheritance, proximity, temporality are some of the axes that organize this sentimental allegory of an impossibility. Around these axes, the utopian junction is always traversed either by a lack or an excess.
Whereas Facundo understands transculturation through the model of subsumption - civilization has the task of capturing the barbaric truth while maintaining / canceling it under itself - and Amalia understands it as a reasonable negotiation of opposites - epitomized in Daniel’s moderate strategy, which attempts to defeat Rosas and attract the “honorable” side of Federalism - in María the alterity to be transculturated is a masked alterity, one permanently on the verge of proving to be just another facet of sameness. If subsumption and conciliation are the privileged figures for Sarmiento and Mármol, for Isaacs transculturation takes the form of conversion. Efraín’s father Jorge is a converted Jew; his cousin and María’s father, Salomón, hands Jorge the task of converting his daughter: “No lo digas a nuestros parientes, pero cuando llegue a la primera costa donde se halle un sacerdote católico, hazla bautizar y que le cambien el nombre de Ester por el de María.” María is thus the image of that alterity that can only conform to the allegorical picture once it is converted back to sameness. As a figure for the otherness that sustains all fables of identity, she belongs to the family without really belonging, is a Christian without really being one. Her seemingly arbitrary death indicates that conversion is either not enough or too much: “Either María dies because her Jewishness is a sin, or she dies because conversion was a sin” (Sommer 190). The object to be transculturated is either untranslatable or redundant: María is either too much of the same - like Efraín, white, slavocrat, oligarchic, converted Christian - or she is too much of an alterity - a convert from Judaism, after all - and as such unabsorbable in the national allegory. Isaacs’s crucial move was to displace the locus of failure away from the terrain more immediately recognizable as political toward the female body. Unlike the Argentine allegories, we are confronted with an intra-class, not a multi-class transculturation - the popular classes in Isaacs’ novel are little more than part of the landscape, unable or unwilling to resist anything, too unimportant even to be the object of co-optive advances by the oligarchy. With a social hierarchy well established, but in a country still in need of national unification, family romance in María is a self-contained one, perfectly symbolized, of course, in the semi-incestuous relationship between these two cousins. As in Facundo and Amalia, transculturation is not an external “content” that María depicts in a ready-made form. While it replicates the model of the sentimental novel, the absence of interdict, the unique racial composition, and the particular vision of nationhood it advances encourage us to view skeptically claims that the novel is a “mere imitation” of European Romanticism (González Echevarría 40; 103). If María does not replicate the natural scientific discourse that plays such a central role in Facundo, it is not because María is a servile imitation of Europe and Facundo some sort of original Latin American contribution, but rather because the model of travel available to Sarmiento can become in Argentina the instrument of transculturation in a way unthinkable in Colombia. Having achived a degree of political and ideological unification unparalleled in other Latin American countries, the Argentine lettered elite could formulate its political task in a binary which fit rather nicely with prevailing natural scientific discourse: in fact, the otherness to be transculturated takes, in Facundo, the locus of nature itself.
It should be emphatically stated, then, that interpreting María or Amalia as imitations of European Romanticism amounts to reading their plots while ignoring the discursive economy in which they are inscribed. Despite being seemingly such a conventional sentimental novel, María is a rich source to grasp the Latin American letrado’s transculturation of Western literary forms for nation-imagining purposes. Critics have noted the novel’s tremendous success (see McGrady), certainly not explainable solely by the catchy love story. More puzzling is the complete absence of a projected redemption of María’s death: bearer of no children, carrier of no legacy, leaving behind a lover who simply “galop[a] por en medio de la pampa solitaria” after hearing the news, María’s death wrests her away from the circuit of exchange. Hers is a value that does not survive its own facticity, the particularity of its own existence, i.e. a use value. As sheer use value, her name perishes with her passing, it only exists as an unexchangeable singularity. If transculturation depends, obviously, on the establishment of an economy whereby proper names can acquire exchange value - and transcend, then, their immediate facticity - María’s name is handed down as a pure gift, one that will not accrue dividends, and thus remain alien to the realm of production. Such alienness to productivity finds its perfect emblem, of course, in Efraín and María’s sterility as a couple. By making of family reproduction the privileged metaphor of the nation’s foundational moment, the novel installs a dilemma: sexual reproduction by definition requires an alterity, the very alterity erased, in a sense, by María’s conversion. Alterity is necessary but impossible, an undecidable structure that allegorizes a deferred foundation. Transculturation is displaced from its terrain, that of economic interchange, for economy is here referred back to its roots: oikos-nomia, the managing of the house, which is, in María, the very image of a sameness which recoils from exchange, which will not tolerate any otherness, and thus linger on in the perpetual self-deferral of sterility.
If Sarmiento could say that “el mal que aqueja a la República Argentina es la extensión, . . . el despoblado sin una habitación humana,” the problem facing the Peruvian elites was evidently distinct. If the project of transculturation can take a futural character for Argentine liberalism, in Peru it had to be first and foremost played out on the terrain of memory. No hegemonic project of Peruvian nationhood could come into being without taking charge of the colonial and pre-colonial past. No fable of identity could be formulated without coherently transculturating the past. This is why costumbrismo (hegemonic in the first years following Independence), immersed in the immediacy of the present -- more local than national, at any rate - could not fulfill the nation-imagining task facing the Peruvian elites. Robert Bazin’s hypothesis is enlightening in this context: if Americanism in its most prestigious version, that of Andrés Bello, did not seem to channel the “most concrete realities,” costumbrismo took it upon itself to voice that immediate empiricity: “si el costumbrismo no define más que la epidermis, es porque únicamente la epidermis era definible” (Bazin 31). The limits of costumbrismo vis-à-vis the nation-building task become apparent in the anecdote related by Jorge Basadre, of how Sarmiento and Felipe Pardo coincided in Chile in the 1840s. Whereas the former is writing Facundo - the utopian book par excellence-, the second can only appeal to satire, colonialist nostalgia, and Hispanic racism in his struggle against the Peruvian-Bolivian Confederation (qtd in Cornejo Polar 30). A similar fate awaited Incaísmo, the ephemeral poetic and theatrical school that postulated the newly-born republic as an heir and avenger of the Inca empire (the latter interpreted fundamentally through el Inca Garcilaso’s Comentarios reales). The nostalgic fiction was unmasked by Bolívar himself, for whom the liberating armies were, “aunque vengadores de su sangre (del Inca), descendientes de los que aniquilaron su imperio” (qtd. in Germán Wettstein 143). It is the masterful erasing of everything uncanny, paradoxical, disturbing in this contradiction - the “freeing” of the oppressed by the descendants of the oppressors - which would later become the keystone of the constitution of a Peruvian national canon with Ricardo Palma.
It is with Palma and the tradición that Peruvian literature faces up to the nation-building task, because only Palma fulfills the need, crucial for Peruvian elites, to nationalize the past. As Cornejo Polar notes, the recuperation of the colony was easier for liberals than for conservatives, for while the former could propose the republican creole Peru as a rupture with Spanish despotism, but not with the entire colonial universe, especially not with its enlightened strand, the latter were forced to lay a claim to the legacy of the very colonizing process, including Spain’s actions (65). Of the two, liberalism was the only one which could nationalize the past without renouncing its own Hispanism, i.e. without opening the national project to those social sectors not represented by either of the two political forces. Palma’s moderate liberalism, then, is not extraneous to the Tradiciones’ nation-imagining accomplishment. Conferring upon the costumbrista sketch the historical consciousness it had always lacked, but maintaining costumbrismo’s elusive, conflict-free approach to social relations, Palma manages to trace back from the republican present a continuous line with the colony. The colony appears almost as a locus amoenus, from which all guilt has been expelled. If the past comes across as a locus amoenus, however, it does not follow that the present is a fall: the immediatism inherited from costumbrismo allows Palma to narrate scenes from the colony almost “from within,” in an illusory but compelling presentness, thereby making of them household items to whose gregarious symbolic power the republican elite could now resort. The background for “Amor de Madre” offers one of the most recurrent images in the Tradiciones: “En los quince años y cuatro meses que duró el gobierno de Brazo de Plata, período a que ni hasta entonces ni después llegó ningún virrey, disfrutó el país de completa paz; la administración fue ordenada, y se edificaron en Lima magníficas casas.” With social contradictions dissolved in their purely anecdotal or humorous content, the past becomes citable again in Palma, and this time the possibility of citing accrues dividends, namely for the liberal project of building the nation by claiming a rupture with Spanish despotism but a continuity with the creole subject formed in and through the colony.
Palma’s primary transculturating operation takes place, therefore, not so much upon Peru’s indigenous masses or the European forms appropriated, but upon the past itself. The constitution of a national canon in Peru - consolidated with the publication of José Toribio Polo’s El Parnaso Peruano (1862), Peru’s first specifically literary national anthology, and Juan de Arona’s Diccionario de peruanismos (1883) - owes much to Palma’s invention of a past that has become narratable. Palma recuperates for a modern, secular world the pre-modern figure of the storyteller who tells from experience. It is within the horizon of this project - the recuperation of the past as symbolic capital for creole nation-building - that Palma’s conversational style, rambling commentaries, frequent digressions, and all sorts of pre-literary, pre-modern interruptions become legible. Palma is not more of a “personal” narrator than, say, Blest Gana because the former is “subjective” while the latter is “objective,” in that tautological explanation so proper to traditional historiography. For Palma, the constitution of a “nosotros” around the axis of memory is possible only through a miming of the pre-modern storyteller who tells his tale by the fire, and with whose audience he has communal bonds. The paradox of the tradición is the paradox proper to all experience-informed storytelling: it presupposes the community that it constitutes (hence the powerful myth of Palma as the good old grand-dad, telling wisdom-filled stories to the new generations: an image constructed, needless to say, in and by Palma’s stories themselves). As an essentially transcultural genre, the tradición thus takes up tasks usually ascribed to the novel. In fact, in its structure, temporality, characterization, underlying worldview, and in much else, the tradición has very little to do with the novel. Rather, in its episodic, anti-teleological immediatism it seems tributary of a pre-novelistic episteme. If it can fulfill novelistic tasks in Peru it is because it has transculturated the past by voiding it of all alterity.
By being linked so organically with the translation of the oral to the
written, one of the tradición’s most powerful ideological
effects stemmed from the impression that the reader was being “told” a
story, rather than reading it. The “imagined community” constructed by
the tradición depended heavily on this effect of immediacy and unmediated
presence. In the Andes, where the opposition between orality and writing
remained more of a polarized conflict than anywhere else in South America,
Palma managed to produce a literary genre that incorporated an imaginary
orality while keeping at bay the explosively political content implicit
in the clash between oral and written forms: “la ‘tradición’ en
su estructura más amplia ofrecía al lector contemporáneo
una imagen coherente del país. Aquel lector estaba motivado emocionalmente
por el mundo criollo, local, teñido de ‘historicidad’, que la tradición
le ofrecía; la ‘tradición’ era una minuciosa reducción
de la historia a una charla familiar” (Ortega 36). The reason behind the
status of Palma’s tradiciones as the first literary system to express a
truly national project has much to do with how it encodes the polarity
between orality and writing within its own form, without challenging -
in fact, reinforcing - the hegemony of the lettered criollo sectors over
the oral Andean cultures.
Ricardo Palma’s originality in the context of the nation-building discourses of the nineteenth-century Latin American elites resides, then, in this particular incorporation of the colonial past for an oralized reinscription of the hegemony of writing, a gesture all the more highlighted by the flair of Palma’s prose. The criollo colonial subject is undoubtedly the great source of Palma’s tradiciones: excluded are both those present elements which would perturb the affable stability of their world and elements of the past which fell outside the genealogy of that particular subject. In other words, the absence of the indigenous in Palma - of all the five hundred tradiciones only six deal with the Inca empire, and very few depict any indigenous subjects under colonialism - is not simply a matter of choice, but an organic component of his project. The system of the tradiciones allows Palma to develop a national project based on the colony which is not, however, Hispanist in the sense that would emerge later with Riva-Agüero. As Cornejo Polar has argued, Palma’s dissociation of colonialism and Hispanism - his privileging of the former as his major source without a necessary embrace of the latter - allows him, for example, the room for the violent polemic with Spain’s Real Academia regarding the validity of Americanisms. It is through the particular relationship he establishes with the colony - mediated by the ideological processes described above - that Palma manages to modernize the Peruvian literary system. Fundamentally defining his project neither in relation to Hispanism, as Riva-Agüero would do later (despite the deliberate subjugation and silencing of the indigenous in Palma’s work) nor in relation to modern European and Anglo-American literatures, as González Prada and Sarmiento, Palma’s tradiciones accomplish the nation-imagining task usually fulfilled, in other national traditions, by the novel.
Since I assume a certain privileged relationship between nation-building and the novelistic - the latter expressed in novels in the traditional sense, or in more hybrid transcultural forms such as Facundo or the Tradiciones peruanas - it might be useful to say a thing or two about how I conceive that relationship, which should bring us back to the concept of transculturation. Beginning in the 1840s and 1850s, the novel became the nation-imagining genre par excellence in Spanish South America. Analyzing it along with the newspaper, Benedict Anderson noted that they were “the two forms that provided the technical means for ‘re-presenting’ the kind of imagined community that is the nation” (Anderson 25). Firstly, the progressive, cumulative conception of time entailed by the novel - as opposed, say, to the episodic and discontinuous time of the epic or, in the case of Latin America, the historical chronicles - allows for the organicist, identity-unfolding development that creates the metaleptic illusion that the community being constituted precisely through that narrative had, in fact, been always already given. Secondly, the particular relationship presupposed by the individual with the national collective is such that it invariably allows for a reading in allegorical key whereby, again, one establishes a link by presupposing it. In this fashion the novel set out to posit nationhood as an object of desire, as a futural construction, as the space of what still not is. Thus a second transcultural operation must be carried out by the 19th-century Latin American writer (this word itself being a transcultural anachronism, as the professionalization of the field did not take place until late in the century): attempting to claim autochtony through mimesis - transculturating the very genre of European modernity -, s/he must also draw the possible from the real, what will be from what is. There seems to be, then, a certain organic link between novel and utopia in 19th-century Latin American, manifested clearly, as argued above, in Sarmiento’s bastard novel.
This perspective allows for a new look upon the fate of the European literary movements in Latin America. For where traditional literary historiography has seen a contrast between a Neoclassical Andrés Bello and a Romantic Sarmiento, the theoretical analysis informed by transculturation sees two projects of instrumentalization of literature for social control. Octavio Paz, for example, has claimed that Spain had no Romanticism for lack of a true Enlightenment to react against, and that Spanish America would then be doubly lacking, for it was a reflection of a reflection (Paz 122). Note how the attachment to sources and influences still operates here, precluding an understanding of discursive production in the Americas in the terms to which that production responded, and not in terms of a quasi-transcendental succession of movements (Neoclassicism, Romanticism, Realism) which all literatures, Paz’s text seems to assume, would necessarily have to follow. For the will to form in Bello has less to do with an attachment to neoclassical norms than with a model of citizenship in which language - el bien decir - became increasingly crucial for establishing social hegemony. The rift that separates the two is then one between a project (Sarmiento’s) in which language, as such, plays no role autonomously - the reason why there is no conception of what it is to write well in Sarmiento - and another (Bello’s) where an incipient autonomization of the intellectual field (emblematized in the very institutions, like the University of Chile, in whose foundation Bello played such a key role) demanded the formulation of a specific task for language in constructing the nation: “Si en Sarmiento prevalece un concepto de la escritura como máquina de acción, transformadora de la ‘naturaleza’ caótica de la barbarie y generadora de vida pública, en Bello constatamos el otro modelo dominante de ‘literatura’ ...: el concepto de las Bellas Letras que postulaba la escritura ‘literaria’ como paradigma del saber decir, producción de efectos . .. ligados a la racionalización proyectada de la vida y ... la lengua nacional” (Ramos 40-1). Despite the fact that one cannot speak of Bello’s work as partaking of a fully autonomous intellectual and / or literary field, it is true that Bello inaugurated a discursive configuration in which language played, as such, a role in the formation of the good citizen (Ramos, “Don”). From then on, the letrado’s transculturating effort has been inseparable from the in the disciplining of the body politic.
This brings us back, full circle, to the very concept of transculturation.
Angel Rama’s appropriation of Ortiz’s concept claimed that transculturation
rested on the originality and independence of Latin America literature
- “su [flagrante] autonomía respecto a las peninsulares” (12). These
concepts, in their turn, went hand in hand with the representativity of
a given singularity - a subject position, a region, what not - vis-à-vis
the continental totality: “esa originalidad sólo podría alcanzarse
. . . mediante la representatividad de la región en la cual
surgía, pues esta se percibía como notoriamente distinta
de las sociedades progenitoras” (13). Transculturation was thus, for Rama,
inseparable from what one might call the foundational Latin Americanist
fiction, the very concept of Latin America as a positive totality endowed
with common attributes. The analysis carried out above of the very moment
in which these categories - originality, independence, representativity
- become productive for the articulation of social hegemony seems to suggest,
then, a possible reversal of Rama’s postulate: from the perspective we
advance here, originality, independence, and representativity are always
already, in themselves, transcultural fictions. In Rama’s still residually
populist scheme, the discursive forms through which originality, independence,
and representativity were to be achieved (the novel, popular song, oral
traditions, visual arts, etc.) had of necessity to undergo a transcultural
operation, but the achievement itself, the concepts describing the productivity
of those discursive forms remain immune, stable in their post-Kantian,
Romantic meanings (hence the tension between our emphasis on transculturation’s
relationship with technologies of discipline and control and Rama’s at
times glowing description of transculturation’s liberating powers, notably
in his discussion of Arguedas). For originality, representativity, and
independence can only, of course, be taken as that which is Latin America’s
own - the properly Latin American, its proper property and propriety -
once they have already been submitted to transcultural violence, i.e. once
the very contents they name - again, in all their Romantic glow - have
been negated, cancelled in the whirlwind of transculturation. The
purity and univocity of these concepts is guaranteed by the masking of
the violence that makes them possible. This volume, as I understand it
at least, is the unveiling of this masking. This operation should bring
us close to the abyss that Rama himself approached, and which his belief
in those three categories prevented him from embracing: the deconstruction
of the very notion of Latin America.
Anderson, Benedict. Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origins and Spread of Nationalism. London and New York: Verso, 1983.
Basadre, Jorge. La iniciación de la República. Vol.2. Lima: Rosay, 1930.
Bazin, Robert. Historia de la literatura americana en lengua española. Buenos Aires: Nova, 1963.
Cornejo Polar, Antonio. La formación de la tradición literaria en el Perú. Lima: Centro de Estudios y Publicaciones, 1989.
García Calderón, Francisco. Diccionario de legislación peruana.
Odriozola’s Manuel de. Colección de documentos literarios del Perú.
García Orza, Raúl. “El ensayo. Juan Bautista Alberdi,” Historia de la literatura argentina
González Echevarría, Roberto. Myth and Archive: A Theory of Latin American Narrative Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1990.
Isaacs, Jorge. 1867. María, ed. Donald McGrady (Madrid: Cátedra, 1986.
Losada, Alejandro. La literatura en la sociedad de América Latina: Perú y el Río de la Plata, 1837-1880. Frankfurt: Verlag Klaus Dieter Vervuert, 1983.
McGrady, Donald. Bibliografía sobre Jorge Isaacs. Bogotá, 1971.
Montaldo Graciela. “Transculturación y discurso emancipador,” contribution to this volume.
Ortega, Julio. Crítica de la identidad: La pregunta por el Perú en su literatura. Mexico: Fondo de Cultura Económica, 1988.
Paz, Octavio. Hijos del limo. Del romanticismo a la vanguardia. Barcelona: Seix Barral, 1974.
Piglia, Ricardo. “Notas sobre Facundo.” Punto de Vista 8 (1980): 15-8.
Pratt, Mary Louise. Imperial Eyes: Travel Writing and Transculturation. New York and London: Routledge, 1992.
Rama, Angel. Transculturación narrativa en América Latina. Mexico: Siglo XXI, 1981.
Ramos, Julio. Desencuentros de la modernidad en América Latina. Mexico City: Fondo de Cultura Económica, 1989.
---. “El don de la lengua.” Paradojas de la letra. Caracas: eXcultura, 1996. 3-21.
Sarmiento, Domingo. 1845. Facundo, o civilización y barbarie. Caracas: Biblioteca Ayacucho, 1977.
Viñas, David. Literatura argentina y realidad política. Buenos Aires: Jorge Alvarez, 1964.
Weinberg, Félix. “La época de Rosas. El romanticismo.” Vol.1: desde la Colonia al Romanticismo. Historia de la literatura argentina. Buenos Aires: Centro Editor de América Latina, 1980.
Wettstein, Germán. “Lenguaje alegórico e ironía
pedagógica en el quehacer poético de Bolívar.” Casa
de las Américas 21 (1984): 143.