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Monday, May 31, 2010

Literal: Latin American Voices

This spring I have an essay in a groundbreaking magazine I hope many of you will buy and read, Literal: Latin American Voices, edited by Rose Mary Salum.  My essay, “A Third Culture: Literature and Migration,” focuses on a topic I discussed at the Guadalajara International Book Fair last November, namely how my writing has been affected as an immigrant to the English language and American culture.

What is exciting about this bilingual issue (Spanish and English) of Literal is its mixture of literature and politics, art and photography, translated works from Latin America and Germany, poetry, fiction, and interviews.  Its nexus is Rose Mary Salum, an incessantly curious editor, who has created an intellectual cornucopia.  I have read about six other issues of Literal, and each is a surprise, a provocation, and a plea to look at the world anew.  I have C. M. Mayo to thank for introducing me to Rose Mary in Guadalajara, where over a long lunch the three of us had one of the best conversations I’ve had at any literary event.

In this issue of Literal, the highlight for me was an unpublished essay by the great Mexican poet Octavio Paz, winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature.  The essay was a talk Paz gave at the University of Texas at Austin in 1986, and is entitled, “Writers and artists in the history of Mexico.”  For anyone who cares about the role of the intellectual in society, in fomenting democracy or stifling it, for anyone who wants to understand the link between Mexican culture and its politics, this is an important work.

Paz focuses on the attitudes of Mexican intellectuals to modernity from the 16th Century to the 20th Century, inaugurated by the Mexican Revolution of 1910 and the eventual rise of the PRI.  Clericals dominated intellectual life in Mexico in the 16th Century. Within a rigid orthodoxy, they struggled with uncertain attitudes toward modernity.  The revolutions of intimacy and reason, the critical cadre of intellectuals exemplified by Hume, Descartes, and Newton, catapulted Europe and the morals of its people to an intellectual ferment that was modern, particular, and pluralistic.

The positivism that arose in Mexico in the 1860s, however, was a global explanation for Mexican society, which instead should have been a philosophy particular to that country.  As Paz relates, the positivism of Porfirio Diaz and his cronies was simply the adoption of the “old theology” with a pseudo-scientific focus.  Before Juárez, intellectuals were part of the church.  After Juárez, intellectuals became part of the state, an unfortunate trend which continued even after the Revolution of 1910.

Paz asks the question: how can you modernize a nation and its morals if those responsible (namely intellectuals) are not completely modern?  He argues that Mexican intellectuals possessed a ‘pre-modern psyche’ with modern ideas.  Mexican intellectuals were not democratic, or interested in solving social issues; they adopted philanthropy, as a social action from above, given their uncertain status as statist elites.  Patrimonialismo, or corruption, became a social norm; a political-bureaucratic class and centralismo flourished.

What Paz says is missing from Mexico, and what he would have wanted Mexico to have, are a balance of power in politics, a critical and independent press, the autonomy of the legislature, and “authentic democracy.”  He longs for that “fraternity of man,” which he believes exists among average Mexicans, and which he sees spontaneously on display during an earthquake, where neighbor helped neighbor.

The role of the intellectual, according to Paz, is to help create this fraternity: “I am one of those who believes in gradual and peaceful changes.  That is why I speak: I believe in the word.  Gradual and peaceful changes are not attained without the intellectual class.  Not because this class is owner of the power to change something, but because this class exercises the power of persuasion that other classes do not possess.  From there, a change of consciousness must be fundamental.” (My translation)

There is no clearer explanation for why I started Chico Lingo.  To have an independent voice.  To persuade.  To change how people look at the world.  The word is not flimsy, even though it possesses no obvious power.  But sometimes the word reaches deeply into souls, particularly those who are still listening and looking, and that is where you may win a world.

Library Renamed: Sergio Troncoso Branch Library

Readings and Appearances: SergioTroncoso.com